Rise Up: The theme adopted in recent years by the Atlanta Falcons describes the life and times of Congressman John Lewis, who died July 17. His life story has been the epitome of Rising Up. Born into poverty in Troy, Ala., he rose to one of the highest offices in the land. To get there was an arduous journey, which none of us can fully appreciate. But all of us can be glad and thankful that he did.
Beaten to within an inch of his life, he overcame Bloody Sunday and other beatings, and exhibited a life that never let anger get the best of him. He was certainly entitled to be angry, but he turned his emotions into action. He helped all of us achieve a closer approximation of a “more perfect Union.”
He was a good friend to the Jewish community. Sherry Frank, the former Southeast area director of the American Jewish Committee, has written a remembrance of his work, including with the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, of which he and she were founding members. During the 1980s, he was a supporter of the fight to free Soviet Jews, who were seeking to emigrate from the USSR.
Called the “conscience of Congress,” Lewis was a symbol of the fight for equal rights of Black Americans, but he fought for the rights of everyone. He was an avid supporter of LGBTQ rights and the rights of Native Americans. He wanted everyone to prosper and shine.
He described himself as someone who got into “good trouble.” He exhibited that early on. He was a driving force in the establishment of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He participated in nonviolent sit-in demonstrations, starting in Nashville, where he worked with C.T. Vivian and other civil rights leaders and protesters. He was arrested over 45 times for his activities in demonstrations, right up until recently.
In our tradition, Rabbi Tarfon admonished, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” John Lewis never desisted from the work of making America live up to its ideals, which were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That phrase gives three examples of our “unalienable rights.” Yet it has taken 244 years to get to this point today, and these ideals have yet to be fully realized in America.
John Lewis’ good trouble and his work in Congress have moved the needle substantially in getting us to live up to those ideals. Now the work falls to all of us who remain. It is time for the rest of us to continue moving the needle further. The work for justice for Black Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, and all others who have been denied their full rights and their full humanity continues apace.
Voting rights remain a priority. Some states are making voting difficult for no good reason. There is very little voter fraud and voting opportunities must be expanded so that all can vote.
The issues of systemic and personal racism must be met head-on. Blatant gerrymandering is one example of the system working to reduce the influence of people of color. Health care disparities are another example and must also be overcome. Confederate monuments were the result of Jim Crow attitudes of intimidation and must be removed to dusty museums.
Poverty, food insecurity and homelessness impact tens of millions of people of all colors. The work to overcome these obstacles cannot be left to volunteer organizations – the problem is too big. Government action is a must.
The school-to-prison pipeline must be ended. Students who are in academic and other troubles must be given the resources and tools to become educated and given the opportunity to become productive citizens. More counselors and educators in schools, not more police, are a better answer for most students.
John Lewis worked on all of these issues and more. So must we all. While we are not required to complete the work, we are not at liberty to desist from it. Our Jewish tradition beacons, and a more perfect Union awaits.
Harold Kirtz is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta.