The Current

Election of Donald Trump will spur more action and activism: John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis on a life of activism and politics.
Congressman John Lewis walks with President Barack Obama, his family and Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday" in the original march on Selma, Ala., 50 years ago. (The Associated Press)

Originally published Jan. 11, 2017. U.S. Congressman John Lewis died on July 17, 2020.

On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 250,000 Americans converged on Capitol Hill for the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech, and the phrase "I have a dream" became instantly iconic.

Another inspirational speaker that day was a 23-year-old named John Lewis. He received rousing applause for his speech, in part of which he asked:

"We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. 
We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again and then be told to be patient. 
How long can we be patient? 
We want our freedom and we want it now."

Two years after giving that speech, Lewis marched again on the bridge crossing from Selma into Montgomery, Ala., on the day known as Bloody Sunday, when state troopers beat protesters as they marched peacefully for the right to vote.

There's nothing more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.- John Lewis

Lewis is now a Democratic congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the co-author of a graphic memoir series called March that recounts his life as an activist. 

The final instalment of March has become the first graphic book to win a National Book Award in the United States. 

"Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and others inspired me to get in trouble and I've been getting in trouble ever since. What I call good trouble. Necessary trouble," said Lewis. 

The Current spoke to him along with his co-author Andrew Aydin, who is also the digital director and policy adviser to Lewis, and Nate Powell, the artist for the trilogy.

Congressman Lewis remembers Bloody Sunday well. 

"We wanted to walk all the way from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people of colour wanted to register to vote," he recalled.

"I was prepared to be arrested and go to jail. On that day I was wearing a backpack before it became fashionable to wear backpacks. In that backpack, I had two books. I wanted to have something to read while I was in jail. I had an apple and an orange — I wanted to have something to eat. I had toothpaste and a toothbrush. Since I was going to be in jail with my friends and fellow protesters, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth."

I think the election this past November shocked hundreds of thousands and millions of Americans. And we will never be the same.- Lewis

That day he received a concussion on the front lines, and was taken to hospital.

Before Lewis threw his life into activism and politics he thought he wanted to become a minister, and he practiced the art of speech on the chickens he tended to as a child.

"We would gather all of our chickens together in the chicken yard and my brothers and sisters and cousins was lined outside of the chicken yard. And I would start speaking or preaching, and when I looked back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads, shake their heads, they never quite said 'Amen,' but I think some of those chickens that I preached to in the '40s and '50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listening to me today, and some of those chickens was just a little more productive. At least they produced their eggs."

Lewis said the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president will only spur more action and activism. "There's nothing more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people. We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We know the direction we must go."

"Maybe our foremothers and forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we're all in the same boat now," said Lewis, quoting the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

"I think America is in the process of waking up. I think the election this past November shocked hundreds of thousands and millions of Americans. And we will never be the same."