Timing is everything. John Lewis came within a whisper of dying for civil rights, specifically at that time, the right to vote. Lyndon Johnson used all his political chits to get the Voting Rights Act passed, turning the American political map on its head. It expired under this administration. Its rewrite, under this administration, and its newly re-balanced Supreme Court by this administration, rejected it. Lewis and several others asked specifically what needed to be changed. They changed it. It was passed by House. The Senate was due to pass it the other day. It hasn’t. If it does then all it will need is the president’s signature. Since the President snubbed the viewing in the Rotunda and the funeral, it’s anyone’s bet what he will do. What does all this mean?
First, let us acknowledge that the life and work of John Lewis and all those who dedicated and continue to dedicate their lives to civil rights has an impact on us all. Whether one chafes under some of it or the tactics used to protect and expand those rights, they none-the-less impact us all. John Lewis was of us all, and claimed that, yet in the mourning it was clear he was held closer in a personal way by America’s African American community. He was also seen by other minorities as a mentor and a beacon.
Today’s America is not your grandparent’s America, or maybe even that of your parents. That America was a country of shared values. The spread between what executives earned and workers earned could in places put them in the same neighborhoods. It had a service-worker’s class. Yes the pay spread was wide but today’s 1% class didn’t exist. Nor did the influence over the country. If fact, according to CNN the real power brokers are one tenth of that one percent.
Over the years the nation’s demographics changed. We are well on our way to having a majority made up of minorities. The culture of a lot of the nation is changing. One sees that most easily in the change of restaurants that pop up in a community. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn everyone was either Jewish from Europe, Irish, or Italian. Add Chinese and those were the restaurants which abounded. Today? Asian, Pakistani,and Indian places about. The point is obvious. The only things that don’t change are owing taxes and death.
The numbers not only don’t lie but they often are prophetic. John Lewis had a way of doing things. Not all people of color cared for it. The Black Muslims and the Prophet Elijah Muhammad were not every African-American’s cup of tea. Nor was Ghandi every Indian’s. Lewis’ way was a way of inclusion. The “civil” in civil rights meant rights for all. It was the way of non-violence, the confronting of violence with determination. Without everyone backing civil rights as an inherent, part of man’s natural law, strife and violence would likely occur.
America’s tummy is rumbling. To keep it quiet and happy its leaders, white and black, must see to the issues before they become problems. You all know what they are. Now is the time, as Lewis said, to make “good trouble,” “righteous trouble.” The trouble has to be made by the leaders with the people. It may make some in the community nervous but in making that good trouble now, the children of our children will be able to become adults who will look back and say, “My parents left me a better America. I’m sure glad I live here.” Then that will be the future of John Lewis’ past–at least from my perspective.
Bill Gralnick, who lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga for almost 10 years, met John Lewis several times as well as many of the other great names from the civil rights movement era. He also accepted an invite to Jackson, Ms and traveled from the north to the deep south by bus during the height of the movement. This column is to honor the living and dead of those who preceded and will succeed John Lewis. He will also forgo the usual cute pictures for his book and will see you next week.