Good and Necessary Trouble: The legacy of John Lewis lives on

Published 1:16 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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John Robert Lewis, a Civil Rights icon known as “The Boy from Troy,” passed away in 2020 but his legacy and impact lives on today.

Lewis protested, marched and fought for civil rights along other icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, collectively known as the “Big Six.” He was also an original member of the Freedom Riders, a group of seven black and six white people that planned to ride on buses from Washington D.C. to Louisiana to challenge the policies of Southern states along the route that imposed segregated buses in 1961. Lewis was arrested more than 40 times during his time as a Civil Rights leader, getting into what he referred to as “Good and Necessary Trouble.”

Lewis’ work didn’t stop at protests or speeches, however. He took his work into government and was a member of the Atlanta City Council in Georgia for years before serving in the United States Congress for more than 30 years before his passing in 2020.

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While he’s known nationally, Lewis’ work started right here in Troy. The son of sharecroppers grew up on large farmland just outside of Troy and as a teenager began to follow King and Rosa Parks’ work in civil rights. After being denied admission to Troy University, Lewis met King for the first time and the rest is history.

Enterprise Mayor William “Bill” Cooper met John Lewis during his days as a Freedom Rider and remained friends with him for the rest of Lewis’ life.

Enterprise mayor William Cooper was a longtime friend of John Lewis.

“Wet met back in 1961 on the floor of the greyhound station in Montgomery,” Cooper recalled with a smile. “I was a student at Alabama State and was getting ready to go home to Dothan for break. When we first got there, there was a bunch of police there but they all left. Then, a bus stopped with the Freedom Riders on it and when they got off the bus all these people from everywhere jumped on those folks and started fighting them.

“We ran back into the baggage room and got into a corner and got down on the floor. Some of the Freedom Riders came in and this guy walked in and sat down beside me and told me he was a Freedom Rider from Troy.”

Cooper said he met some of Lewis’ family at a church meeting in Troy later and then met Lewis again when Lewis was working with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery. Cooper even recalled being invited to what would end up being “Bloody Sunday” by Lewis.

“My mother was a public school teacher and a lot of students that got involved with that stuff would get back to the governor and their parents would get fired,” Cooper said. “I didn’t want to get my parents into any kind of trouble but I saw it on TV, I saw what happened.”

Cooper said that the two remained friends over the years and would visit one another when they had the chance.

“We were very good friends,” Cooper said. “He always told me if I was going to get into some trouble, to get into some good trouble.”

Lewis’ family still owns the land he grew up on off Gardner Bassett Road outside of Troy and much of his family still calls Troy home to this day, and many of those family members are helping keep his legacy alive through the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute.

Lewis’ nephew Jerrick Lewis is one of the founders and executive director of the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute and he too grew up on the same property that John Lewis grew up on in Pike County.

“For a long time I really didn’t understand the history I was surrounded by because I was so young,” Jerrick Lewis said. “I learned a lot from staying out there. It kept me humble and as I grew older I was able to refer back to those days and appreciate it more. One thing I learned growing up there – around all my uncles and other family – was to have a good work ethic. I saw my uncles and dad all working day jobs and still working the land. We had to learn to farm and drive the tractor and cut firewood for each home.”

John Lewis’ nephew Jerrick Lewis, pictured with Troy Mayor Jason Reeves, is helping to keep his uncle’s legacy alive with the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute.

To Jerrick Lewis, his Civil Rights leader uncle was simply “Uncle Robert” until he began to learn more and more about his work as he grew older.

“I went to middle school at Banks Middle School and every Black History Month they would show us different films about the Civil Rights Movement and I would see my uncle on there,” he remembered. “As I grew older I really started to learn more and more about him and everything he did. When I got older I would talk to my uncle and I had already known he was a Civil Rights leader but to me he was still our uncle.

“We understood his place in history – and understood that he was in politics at the time – and I started studying the things he did instead of just hearing it, and started to take it in and that’s when I really started to understand the history.”

In December 2019, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and less than a year later he passed away.

“When we found out he had cancer it was devastating,” Jerrick Lewis said. “That was probably one of the most devastating things I’ve ever heard. I just assumed with him being in politics that he’s got access to the best healthcare there is and he would be fine. One thing about cancer is that it does not discriminate at all.

“It affects people in a lot of different ways. My mother had breast cancer, so I was familiar with cancer but I wasn’t familiar with pancreatic cancer at all.”

After Lewis’ passing, he and many of his family members decided to keep his legacy alive with the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute.

“Probably a month and a half after he passed away I would come home every day and cry because it really had just hit me at that point,” said Jerrick Lewis. “As time progressed those tears started turning into joyful tears because I went from mourning and grieving him passing to celebrating his life and things he stood for.

“After he passed away me and some of my family members were sitting back one day and asking ourselves what we were doing. We felt like we had to do something and said to ourselves that our uncle left us this platform and we needed to do something with it. I always wanted to help people, too, so we started the institute and now we’re able to help kids and educate kids. We just wanted to make a difference with the institute”

Jerrick Lewis said that the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute operates under three pillars that were vital to John Lewis’ legacy; social justice, equity in education and health awareness.

“Our mission is simply to advance equity and preserve his legacy and projects,” Jerrick Lewis emphasized. “We’re not trying to recreate the wheel; we just want to partner with other organizations to amplify the needs of the community.”

Lewis during “Bloody Sunday” wearing his famous trench coat and backpack. Now, the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute has a program called the “Trench Coach and Backpacks Program.”

One of the institute’s primary programs is called the Trench Coats and Backpacks Program. The program provides books for schools and is named after the famous pictures of John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” wearing his trench coat and backpack.

“In that backpack he had books, toothpaste, a toothbrush, an apple and an orange,” Jerrick Lewis said. “He knew he was going to jail, so if he’s going to jail he needs something to read, something to take care of his personal hygiene and something to eat. I’ve never in my life been prepared to go to jail but he was; he had that mindset. That explains why we call one of our programs the Trench Coat and Backpacks Program, which provides books for children.”

The institute also leads voter registration drives and raises awareness and funding for cancer research related to pancreatic cancer and other forms of cancer.

John Lewis’ legacy, however, doesn’t just reside in the institute; his legacy can be seen all over Troy. A historical marker in Troy celebrates his life and career just outside of the place he once couldn’t get a library card at, the Troy Public Library. Another historical marker is located on the land he grew up on just outside of Troy. On the campus of Troy University, Bibb Graves Hall was renamed John Robert Lewis Hall. The same university that denied John Lewis admission bestowed on the Lewis family one of its biggest honors.

“It’s not just us keeping his legacy alive; I see numerous people and organizations that are still preserving and pushing forward his legacy,” Jerrick Lewis said. “For Troy University and the City of Troy to do that makes me feel amazing inside. It makes my heart smile and makes me say I’m proud to be from Troy.

“I’ve been all over the United States but the one thing I figured out a long time ago is that I love Troy and the longer I stay here the more reason it gives me to know that I made the right choice to come back home and have the institute based out of Troy. I still get choked up when I ride through campus and look over at John Robert Lewis Hall. Troy University is a special place to me.”

Lewis’ legacy will also be recognized this year officially as President’s Day will share the day as John Lewis Day in the City of Troy.

“Mayor (Jason) Reeves has been amazing and Chancellor (Jack Hawkins Jr.) has been amazing,” Jerrick Lewis said. “They do things in this community that brings the community together. One thing you cannot take for granted is people’s effort and people’s time. That is something people don’t have to give you.”

Cooper said that he’s proud of the legacy that Lewis has left for Pike County and the Wiregrass.

“Being from a small town there in Pike County, I think it really put that area on the map as far as having people that was out there trying to help others,” said Cooper. “He wasn’t a radical person, he was very alert as far as trying to help children and help other people. He was someone that a lot of young men would want to emulate.

“I never heard him say a cuss word, he was always on the progressive side. He was all about being able to do better or that you always had a second chance to do better. He was just that kind of fellow. His legacy as far as being a young man from LA – lower Alabama – is that he really made a name for himself and gave this area something to think about because Troy really honored him by naming the facility on campus there and everything. I think his legacy is something that will live on.”

Troy Mayor Jason Reeves said that Lewis’ legacy is something that Troy residents can all be proud of.

“That fact that he was from here and became one of the ‘Big Six’ and was such a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement is remarkable,” he said. “He led a remarkable life that he continued to live for so many years and I think that becoming known as ‘The Boy from Troy’ was very special and something the community can be proud of.

“I think a lot of his legacy is really based on the foundation of his faith and family, which was developed right here in Pike County. I think that is a tremendous part of his legacy. I think the pinnacle of that is that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world, in my opinion, and we work everyday to form a more perfect union and what (John Lewis) did got us closer to that more perfect union.”

Reeves said that he’s proud of the way John Lewis’ family is helping to keep that legacy alive.

“His brother Grant coached me and was someone I looked up to as a mentor even now,” Reeves continued. “I’m very proud of the work that Jerrick has worked so hard to accomplish and all of the family that is here. When I mentioned that he was able to do all the things he did because of the foundation of strong family and faith; that really is important.

“I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to have the relationship I do with his family and that they have made – and continue to make – a very strong impact on the community and it’s something to be proud of.”

With all of his accolades and his legacy as a Civil Rights leader and a politician, Jerrick Lewis said he would like people to know how good of an uncle John Lewis was.

“What I think I would want the world to know is that he was a heck of an uncle, too,” Jerrick Lewis emphatically said. “He supported his nieces and nephews and all of his family. There’s a lot of us coming from a family of 10 siblings. He was a great uncle to us.

“He would come to our weddings and our graduations and stuff like that no matter what he had going on. I’ve seen times where he would come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or some other event and may not be able to stay for 30 minutes. For a man to come home from D.C. or Atlanta just to see his family for 30 minutes meant a lot to him. I don’t know a lot of people that would do that.”

Lewis said that he hopes the institute can help keep his uncle’s legacy alive, especially the message to never give up or give in.

“God has a plan for everyone, you just have to never give up and as my uncle always said, never give in,” Lewis emphasized. “We have a moral obligation to do something, to say something and to get into that good and necessary trouble that he repeatedly talked about. I think that’s something that people forget; it wasn’t just about that good trouble. It was also very necessary trouble.”