This interview was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Men’s Health. Rep. John Lewis died on July 17, 2020 at age 80.
REP. JOHN LEWIS has been arrested 45 times in his 80 remarkable years on the planet. He’s been beaten, spat on, doused in scalding water, and insulted, impugned, and harassed in every way imaginable. Yet through it all—the marches with Martin Luther King Jr., the lunch-counter sit-ins, and even 33 years in the House of Representatives serving the Georgia Fifth—he’s continued to believe that there’s greater strength in fighting force with love. Even as the country erupted in anti-racism protests over the weekend, some of them involving violent clashes with law enforcement, Lewis reiterated his beliefs.
The Georgia congressman has a new documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, released by Magnolia Pictures and Participant in theaters and on demand July 3. Prior to the nationwide protests taking place, Lewis talked about building inner strength, battling pancreatic cancer, and fighting for the soul of America.
WHEN I was growing up in Alabama in the 1950s, I heard my mother say over and over again, “Don’t get in trouble.” But I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi to get in what I call good trouble. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, it’s my philosophy that you have a moral obligation to get in trouble, to make some noise, to point people in a different direction.
ON OCCASION in the whole struggle for the right to vote, we were arrested, we were jailed, we were beaten. In the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, we were attacked. I thought I was going to die. But when the heat of the conflict had passed, I had an executive session with myself. I decided to keep looking ahead, to keep believing that those of us in the movement would one day prevail. We did get a Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
STRENGTH is the will, the desire, and the ability to continue, to press on. Strength comes in different forms. It’s more than physical. There is mental strength that enables us to say we can do it, we must do it, and we will do it. There is spiritual strength that leads us to say a little prayer. Sometimes you might ask for determination. That is spiritual strength.
I DIDN’T want to get killed, but as a Freedom Rider fighting for lunch-counter integration in 1961, I came to the conclusion that this may be the price that I have to pay to a people and our movement, to move this nation closer to a society based on justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being. We had to do what we could to redeem the soul of America.
Tapping “Soul Force”
YOUR ABILITY to match physical force with soul force, as Dr. King would say, demonstrates that you are willing to pay even the ultimate price to bring about the necessary change. When you engage in nonviolent action, you must do it out of love. Love is the reason you put yourself in harm’s way. We all love life, but a nonviolent activist also loves humanity. Without love, a person does not have the capacity or the ability to even begin a struggle or participate in one. You have to have love.
TODAY, IT seems discouraging to many of us, and we may wonder whether we have lost our way in politics or even as a nation and as a people. We may not have lost our way as much as we have elected individuals who are only concerned about their own individual interests and not about the interests of people. That’s why we must not give up on politics. We cannot let the forces of division, violence, and hatred win. We must pull together, work together.
WE HAVE overcome so much in America. But we have not arrived at the end of the journey. We are involved in an ongoing struggle, an ongoing fight. I like to say that democracy is not a state; it is an act, and each generation must act. They must stand up and contribute to our society to make things better for all humankind. We can do it, and we must do it. We will do it.
I WAS not surprised because sometimes I could feel something on my left side. Through the tests, it was discovered that I had cancer. I said to myself that I would not let cancer keep me down. One medical attendant encouraged me. She said, “Congressman Lewis, you’re a fighter—you must fight.” I assured her, “I will. I will not give in.” I don’t feel like I’m 80. I feel much younger, and I try to carry myself that way. I am optimistic that no matter what happens, everything will all work out.
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