Not every speaker tells a crowd of young leaders that their job is to get into trouble. But that’s part of the message iconic civil rights warrior and now Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) conveyed at this year’s week-long Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools National Training that began June 1 for nearly 2,000 college age Freedom School servant leaders and site coordinators. They will mentor, teach, and lead Freedom School programs for over 12,500 pre-K through 12th grade students across the country this summer in faith congregations, public schools, college campuses, juvenile detention facilities, homeless shelters, and a range of other settings where the neediest children live.
Freedom Schools seek to empower children through reading wonderful books, to engage parents, and to reweave the fabric of community support for children. John Lewis and Andrew Young spoke movingly at the opening training session celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, when young White people from around the country joined local Black citizens and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers to open up Mississippi’s closed Jim Crow society and demand the right to vote for Black citizens. Freedom Summer 1964 helped transform Mississippi and American society, but it demanded great sacrifice and courage. Three young people, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, gave their lives after investigating the burning of a local Black church where a Freedom School was to be held, victims of state and White supremacist violence.
As he spoke to today’s young Freedom Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new events that would change his life:
In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, 'John Lewis, you, too, can do something... You can make a contribution.
John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with the library:
So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for coloreds.
A year later, as a high school senior, he decided to apply to Troy State College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home -- but his application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily -- but he was not finished. Without telling his parents or anyone else what he was doing, he wrote a letter to Dr. King asking for his help, and Dr. King responded by sending the teenager a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and inviting him to come to Montgomery to meet with him. By that time John Lewis had enrolled in his first year at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, Tennessee. Over his spring break the 18-year-old decided to take Dr. King up on his offer:
So in March of 1958, I boarded a Greyhound bus [and] traveled to Montgomery... I was so scared. I didn't know what to say or what to do, and Dr. King said, "Are you the boy from Troy?" Meeting Martin Luther King Jr., meeting Ralph Abernathy, meeting Rosa Parks, and later meeting Jim Lawson, who taught me the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, changed my life and set me on a path. And I haven't looked back since.
John Lewis explained that his parents and community hadn’t taught him to challenge segregation: “When I would ask my parents about those signs they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’” But his experience in the civil rights movement taught him a different lesson that he wanted to share with today’s young leaders:
I got in trouble. I got in good trouble, necessary trouble. I say to you, you’re more than lucky. You are blessed, and you have to use whatever you see to pass it on to someone else. Bless someone else. Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. Speak up. Speak out. You must get out there and push and pull and help change things and bring about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas... Someone must put out and say what is going on is not right, it is not fair, it is not just, and we are here to do something about it.
He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi:
Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21, 1964, almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They didn't die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.
John Lewis was another of those founding fathers and mothers whose leadership in the civil rights movement and in nearly 30 years as a Member of Congress is helping shape the America we must become. He left his audience with a final encouragement to do the same: “So go out there and be a headlight and not a tail light. Get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself. It will all work out.” It’s a message young people across our nation and all of us need to hear and act upon today.