On the eve of the 44th president’s inauguration in Washington, Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
This was a remarkable comment from the man who was severely injured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, a police riot that horrified the country and paved the way for adoption of the Voting Rights Act in July of that year. David Remnick’s 2010 Obama biography made Lewis’s quote a departure point; the new president represented the “Joshua generation” that had reached a post-racial promised land through the efforts of the “Moses generation” of civil-rights leaders like Lewis. By implication, that older generation could retire from the spotlight with dignity, its essential work having been completed.
Over a decade later, for John Lewis at least, that dignified retirement turned out to be an illusion. In a new documentary film by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the veteran voting-rights champion views himself as facing the potential reversal of his life’s work via an open conservative crusade to restrict the franchise, led by Obama’s successor in the White House. Indeed, Obama himself is a relatively minor figure in the film, which skillfully alternates between footage and narrative of Lewis’s early life and his series of key contributions to the civil-rights and voting-rights movements of the 1960s, and his most recent efforts to fight voter suppression and the white identity politics of the contemporary right, notably in the 2018 midterm elections.
Lewis’s improbable rise to his position as one of the indispensable leaders in the fight to dismantle Jim Crow began 80 years ago at a southeast Alabama chicken farm, where he was the third of ten children born to sharecroppers (who later did manage to buy the land they worked). The studious young man met Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 18, but while he worked with the great civil-rights leader on and off until King’s assassination in 1968, he pursued his own path. As a college student in Nashville in 1960, Lewis was one of the organizers of the pioneering sit-in movement that succeeded in breaking the color line at the city’s lunch counters and other public facilities. He then moved on to a key role in the Freedom Rides that desegregated interstate public transportation in the South, before being elected president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and devoting himself to the dangerous task of registering Black voters in Deep South counties. As one of the “big six” civil-rights leaders, alongside such legends as A. Philip Randolph and MLK, Lewis, still in his early 20s, helped organize and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.
There’s an anecdote in the film in which a Lewis speechwriter asked him if he had ever spoken before a crowd as large as the one he addressed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (a speech for which I had the privilege of helping rehearse Lewis, the most decent politician I met in many years of convention service). He gently reminded her he had spoken to a throng of a quarter-million people during the March.
At every step of the way, Lewis was brutalized by police and civilian racist violence, earning him respect even from his enemies for his courage, without shaking his commitment to the principles of nonviolence he learned in Nashville. Porter’s film touches on the famous incidents in which Lewis was so intimately involved, including the Freedom Summer in Mississippi that led to the murder of civil-rights volunteers by Klansmen, another moment that helped rouse the conscience of the country.
Likely because the film wants to depict Lewis’s current political battles as something of a throwback to his civil-rights heyday, it doesn’t dwell much on his turn to more conventional political pursuits, other than a segment on the sadly bitter 1986 congressional election in which Lewis defeated his old friend and SNCC colleague (and later NAACP chairman) Julian Bond, and began his long career in the U.S. House.
But in the portions of the film devoted to his more recent campaign work we are shown the merger of Lewis’s social movement and party politics backgrounds. It’s made clear that the development that turned him from a well-deserved semi-retirement was the destruction of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Right Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. The shocking nature of this reversal is illustrated by footage of George W. Bush proudly signing a bipartisan extension of the VRA in 2006.
By 2018, Lewis was barnstorming the country, pursuing the twin goals of a Democratic takeover of the House (in which he serves in the party leadership) and the battle to vindicate voting rights. A segment on midterm Election Night and the immediate aftermath shows his pride in the party’s victory (which also expanded the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus), but also his dismay at the defeat of Stacey Abrams, in some respects his heir as a southern voting-rights champion, for the governorship of his own state after an aggressive campaign of voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Toward the end of Porter’s film, he is given tributes by a number of young politicians of color (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cory Booker) who stress both his legacy and his continued leadership. Now they, rather than Obama, seem to represent the end of the bridge in Selma. Stacey Abrams encapsulates the message by saying Lewis is a living reminder that “the past isn’t past.”
You get the sense watching Lewis in the more recent footage that like most people his age, he’s slowed down. His wife of 44 years, Lillian, passed away in 2012. There is no explicit reference to his diagnosis late last year of pancreatic cancer, though clearly his staff and friends are solicitous about his health. There’s no question the upshot of the film is that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and reestablishing inalienable voting rights would represent the capstone of a very public life. Even if his body is now weak, his voice is the same, bred in the sermons of the Black church in Jim Crow Alabama, a voice of prophecy, determination, and charity. I’m sure John Lewis has his regrets like all of us, but his principles haven’t changed since his training in nonviolent social change in Nashville six decades ago.
The title of Porter’s film comes from a frequently repeated saying of Lewis’s, usually preceded by a reference to his 40 arrests over the years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s his fate to be placed in the position of still being a troublemaker at the age of 80. But for this singular man, it’s more appropriate than a quiet retirement.