Do protests ever enact real change? Yes. But not all movements are created equal. Here’s the ingredients of a successful movement.
Democracy was not born in Philadelphia in 1787. It was born, with John Lewis as midwife, in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
John Lewis was a bright, curious, and ambitious boy born in 1940 and raised by sharecroppers in the small, rural, segregated town of Troy, Alabama.
He was 14 when Thurgood Marshall rendered the 1954 Brown v. Board of Educationdecision ending legal segregation. He was 15 when Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi and his mangled body appeared in Jet Magazine. Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he’d heard on the radio inspired him. He wanted to be a part of changing things. At 18 he wrote King asking for a meeting and when they met in Montgomery King said, “So you are John Lewis, the boy from Troy.” John became a key figure in a broad social and political movement.
I met John Lewis in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, shortly after the Woolworth’s sit-in amidst a growing student activist movement. In Nashville, Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith were mentoring students — John, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and others — in the philosophy of Gandhian non-violent direct action and they soon became known civil rights activists.
Democracy was born in Selma in 1965
John joined the Freedom Riders in 1961 desegregating public transportation across the South. He was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, one of the “big six” who organized the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington and the last living speaker from that event. John was always creating “good trouble.”
The march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, March 7, 1965 was part of SNCC’s focus on voting rights. Neither John nor the marchers could have anticipated the national explosion their being attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers created in the nation. Bloody Sunday led President Lyndon Johnson to give a nationally televised address on March 15 supporting the marchers, concluding, “And we shall overcome.”
King, Hosea Williams and John led thousands of marches on a 50-mile trek to Montgomery between March 21-25 and on Aug. 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Democracy was not born in Philadelphia in 1787. It was born in Selma in 1965. The next step in fulfilling John Lewis’ dream of voting rights is adding a right to vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
John’s passing on July 17 is very personal to me. On July 16, 1960, 60 years ago, the “Greenville 8” — I along with seven other students — engaged in an act of non-violent direct action and sat in at the Greenville South Carolina Public Library. We were arrested and taken to jail. Within a couple of weeks the library was desegregated. On July 17, 1984, 36 years ago, I gave a speech to the Democratic National Convention ending my first presidential campaign.
Two years later, in 1986, John Lewis was elected to Congress. In 1988, he proposed legislation for an African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He fought for 15 years and finally passed it in 2003. He lived to see it open in September 2016.
The legacy of the “boy from Troy” who was always causing “good trouble” will live on.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is is an American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and politician. Follow him on Twitter: @RevJJackson
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/07/21/jesse-jackson-legacy-selma-alabama-john-lewis-column/5474010002/