On Friday July 17, the world lost an extraordinary man. John Lewis, civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, died of pancreatic cancer. Mr. Lewis was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders who challenged the segregated public buses in the South, served as founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and helped organize and was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. Most memorably, he led the march in Selma, Alabama where he and other peaceful protesters were beaten and gassed by Alabama State Troopers, in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Mr. Lewis himself was struck with a billy club on the head as he retreated from the rush of the police officers. Arguably his most important and enduring contributions were as a Congressman, championing multiple pieces of important legislation during his thirty-four years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
John Lewis is remembered for many things, but perhaps nothing is cited more by those who knew him than the word courage. President Barack Obama said of Mr. Lewis, “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind.” Mr. Lewis embodied courage. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the six universal virtues – courage, justice, humanity (including love), temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. And in a subsequent post, I made the case for love as the most critical of these virtues. John Lewis’ death reminded me of the foundational nature of courage. Indeed, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks first about courage. Upon reflection, it’s understandable why he did so. Without the ability to push through fear and act when your conscience tells you that you must, the other virtues aren’t possible. Without courage, how can one advocate for justice? Without courage, how is it possible to find love and see the humanity in those who have done you wrong? Without courage, how do you possess the temperance to refrain from acting in the very manner against which you are protesting? Without courage, how can you find the wisdom to advocate for what is right but unpopular? And without courage, how can you transcend the comfort and safety of your small, insular world and be part of a movement that is much bigger than yourself?
John Lewis was the man he was because of his extraordinary courage. He gave us all an example of what it looks like to do the right thing, even when it is hard. And, importantly, he reminded us that the need for courage is not limited to leading a nation of people or a political movement. Famously, Mr. Lewis exhorted all of us to “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.” The opportunity to do and say what is right, even when it isn’t easy, happens daily. Mr. Lewis gave us countless gifts to be sure, including the advancement of civil rights in a country where there is still much progress to be made. But perhaps his most important gift was the example he set of what it looks like to live and lead courageously.
In the few days since his passing, I’ve been pondering his words. Where can I get into a little bit of “good trouble?” Where have I been a little too comfortable? Where can I be more courageous in how I’m living and leading my life? I’m not sure exactly what will emerge from my inquiry. But I’m committed to honoring this great man’s legacy by having the discipline to ask the hard questions of myself. And, even more importantly, the courage to act on the answers.