One of the most surprising things about “Good Trouble,” a new documentary on Georgia Congressman John Lewis’ six decades in the public spotlight, is how many jokes appear during the 96-minute runtime.
The levity that imbues Lewis, 80, as he gathers with staffers, chats with relatives and booms from a podium persists in someone who has endured some of the worst America has to offer.
The film makes his sacrifices clear — the civil rights movement was a brutal affair as Lewis put his body on the line time after time in nonviolent demonstrations from “Bloody Sunday” to the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. The documentary’s title itself comes from Lewis’ belief that “good trouble, necessary trouble” is necessary to change the world.
Director Dawn Porter, whose film credits include “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “Spies of Mississippi,” yearned to hear more from the civil rights icon. She was intrigued by the breadth of his work, she said, and wondered: “How do you do justice to such a magnificent life?”
“We came to him…at a time when he was ready to tell his story,” she told NPR. “You know, I think he is – as he was approaching his 80th birthday, he’s always reflective, but I think he was particularly reflective. So it was a wonderful time for both of us to engage on this adventure together.”
A dizzying montage of Lewis stumping for a slew of progressive candidates in 2018’s midterm elections shows the stamina and grit of a man determined to help the country moves forward. “My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” he says quietly in one scene. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.”
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr makes an appearance, remarking that Lewis wept on his show, “Finding Your Roots,” as his team was able to uncover the activist’s great-great grandfather’s voting registration card from 1867.
“And by my calculation,” Gates told him, “no one in your family between him and you — because of what you did at Pettus Bridge and the Voting Rights Act — no one in your family line voted between him and you.”
Gates recalled that after Lewis composed himself, he simply replied: “I guess it’s in my DNA.”
Viewers witness the multi generational impact of Lewis in scenes of eager readers thrusting copies of “March,” his young adult graphic novel chronicling the movement, asking for autographs. (Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999 for “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” the precursor to “March.”)
Mostly, the film portrays Lewis as a gentle leader who has seen the country through some unbelievable lows. But it also reminds viewers that Lewis has moments of ferocity. The contentious 1986 Congressional election saw him face off with friend and fellow activist Julian Bond for a seat in Atlanta’s fifth district, a battle Lewis ultimately won.
Soundbites from those who know him best — his chief of staff, his siblings, fellow Congressional Black Caucus members — fill in the portrait, alongside the man himself. One voice is missing — Lillian Miles, Lewis’ wife of 44 years, who died in 2012. It is clear from those around him that Lewis is still working through his grief. As his sister noted, after her death, “He got quieter.”
The film wrapped in December, right before the news that the congressman had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. An erroneous tweet from Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina on July 11 reported on the congressman’s passing, leading to an outpouring of relief as his team refuted the rumors.
“Grateful that the great @repjohnlewis is still with us,” former national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted. “We need the wisdom and strength of this American hero and civil rights icon now more than ever.”
Indeed, the film elevates Lewis at a critical time — it was released July 3, in the midst of a national reckoning with race after the police killing of George Floyd. In a virtual townhall June 15 on the mental health impact of the uprisings on Black America, Lewis was delighted at the action he saw in the streets nationwide: “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”
U.S. Congress member John Lewis is short and bald and unfailingly humble. Before he could say a word during a quick September stop in Cleveland to accept the Louis Stokes Community Vision Award, a breakfast crowd of more than 500 gave the 77-year-old a thunderous standing ovation.
Overhead in the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, the film trailer for “Selma” had spun out a brief, heart-clenching re-enactment of Bloody Sunday in 1965, when law enforcement officials beat Lewis unconscious on Alabama’s Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Canadian actor playing Lewis – Stephan James – appears in the
trailer four times.
A clip from the John Lewis episode of “Finding Your Roots” followed. It re-played the revelation that Tobias Carter, the Atlanta congress member’s great great great grandfather, had registered to vote in Alabama in 1867, after the end of the Civil War. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s part of my DNA,” Lewis says, shaking his head
in disbelief. “It’s just incredible.”
Steven A. Minter, master of ceremony for the Stokes award, called Lewis “a great moral leader in these troubled times.” Minter quoted Lewis from Walking with the Wind: “When I care about something, I am prepared to take the long hard road. That is what faith is about.”
“Revitalizing communities takes time,” said Executive Director Denise VanLeer. “It really is unique to get input from everyone in a way that no one is more important than anyone else. And that’s not easy.”
VanLeer said she loved hearing Lewis’ standard story about being a four-year-old boy preaching to the chickens in the yard of his parent’s farm in Pike County, Ala. In his mellifluous baritone, Lewis still preaches, delivering a few choice words for Cleveland: “Louis Stokes believed health care was a right for everybody. Growing up in rural Alabama, we did not have health insurance, we had burial insurance. . .We’ve gone a distance; we’ve made a bit of progress. But there are forces today trying to take us back.”
In the ballroom and on Twitter, Lewis urges: “Each and every person has a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to speak up and stand up for those left out and left behind.”
VanLeer reflected on a recent example close to her, when a grandmother in Griot Village, the intergenerational housing in Fairfax, was asked to take in a fourth grandchild, an infant. The woman said she was too weary to begin again with a new baby, but her neighbors rallied to take shifts of childcare and the staff of Fairfax Renaissance rounded up clothing and supplies. In the end, the grandmother took that fourth child.
“It was a beautiful example of the community pulling together,” VanLeer said. “It is why we get up in the morning.”
How does one structure a year in reading?
The New York Times published the answers of 47 writers and artists who reflected on the books they chose over the past year. Their responses create a fascinating skein of reading and thinking, and include essays from four Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients. The entire conversation, which weaves from basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to filmmaker Ava DuVernay to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to author Maxine Hong Kingston, is enlivening, a hopeful way to face into a new year.
Maxine Hong Kingston, who won a 1978 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Woman Warrior,” came up with the longest and the widest-ranging list. She sampled Charles Darwin and Nora Ephron and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas on Depression.” He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Far from the Tree,” another landmark, luminous work of nonfiction.
Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust expended her entire essay praising “March,” the three-book graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis recounting his formation in the crucible of Civil Rights. These books in turn are based on “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis’ classic accounting of his life, which won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1999.
Another graphic work attracted the praise of Junot Diaz, who kicks off the New York Times compilation recommending “Ghetto Brother,” a history of a multiracial Bronx, drawn and created by Julian Voloy and Claudia Ahlering. Diaz, who won an Anisfield-Wolf for his novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also highlighted another nonfiction title: Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” Diaz writes that “Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America” in a book subtitled “Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”
James McBride, whose 1997 memoir “The Color of Water” is still taught widely in universities, strikes a bluesy note in an essay that divides books “into categories like saxophone players.” He read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and then — to shake off some of its disturbing currents – turned to the manuscript for “Two and Two,” a forthcoming memoir from Rafe Bartholomew. McBride highly recommends this portrait of New York’s oldest saloon.
Samantha Power, who won both a Pulitzer and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “A Problem of Hell,” read books last year that illuminated her work as the United States ambassador to the United Nations: Madeline Albright’s “Madame Secretary” and Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President.”
The list from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was flavored by two Anisfield-Wolf winning authors: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Charcoal Joe,” the latest detective novel from Walter Mosley. The basketball legend also read poetry, specifically “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet. Meanwhile sublime novelist Colm Toibin read 2013 Anisfield-Wolf honoree “My Promised Land.” Toibin described Ari Shavit’s nonfiction work as giving him “an increased sense of the complexity of Israeli heritage.”
Back in the United States, filmmaker Jill Soloway thought about making a pilot as she read “You Can’t Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson. And Jacqueline Woodson recently held up her copy on PBS’s “News Hour” as a galvanizing book from 2016.
However one navigates a year, it is bettered by the company of a good book. The selections in this compilation are a bracing place to start.
Flanked by collaborators Andrew Aydin, his co-writer, and illustrator Nate Powell, Lewis shared the significance of the moment with the crowd. His brief acceptance speech, which brought tears to both Aydin and Powell, is worth a listen.
The second installment in March, Rep. John Lewis’ acclaimed graphic memoir trilogy on the civil rights movement, picks up where the first volume left off, but this book is more handbook than history lesson.
“I see some of the same manners, some of the same thinking, on the part of young people today that I witnessed as a student,” the Georgia Congressman, 74, told the New York Times. “The only thing that is so different is that I don’t think many of the young people have a deep understanding of the way of nonviolent direct action.”
March: Book Two, released in January, offers a robust crash course. This book centers on a young Lewis and his increasing responsibility within the movement from 1960 to 1963. The graphic memoir opens on young protesters staging a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter. The peaceful protest soon turned ugly as the restaurant owner deployed a fumigating device to drive away the demonstrators. Lewis, by then seasoned, was still in disbelief: “Were we not human to him?”
Those sit-ins led to the Freedom Rides of 1961. In his letter to organizer Fred Shuttlesworth, Lewis was resolute in his desire to participate: “This is the most important decision in my life — to decide to give up all if necessary for the freedom ride, that justice and freedom might come to the deep south.”
The harrowing bus rides — orchestrated to test the new anti-segregation bus laws made possible by the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia — unleashed angry mobs that bloodied and battered many of the riders. This led to conflict within the movement, with divisions growing between members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Lewis would later become chairman.)
The book culminates with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where a 23-year-old Lewis spoke sixth. A sense of relief settles in for the reader, yet it doesn’t last long. The final pages are a sledgehammer to the gut. It is clear: there is much more work to do.
Interwoven with this narrative is the historic 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, shown through Lewis’ eyes. The juxtaposition is stirring but somber.
Lewis’ goal is not simply to explain the methods of the movement, but also the soul. Book Two’s greatest strength is its focus on sacrifice — the graphic memoir centers on the physical, emotional and financial price paid by those at the forefront of the movement. Lewis praises his comrades repeatedly for their intellect and fortitude, allowing them to shine alongside King. (He is particularly fond of A. Phillip Randolph, noting, “If he had been born at another time, he could’ve been president.”)
Lewis’ senior aide Andrew Aydin is a co-writer, as he was for the first book. Both are illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell, who does exceptionally detailed work here. Almost two years ago, March: Book One became required reading for first-year students at several major universities. Moreover, schools in more than 40 states are teaching March at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. USA Today and The Washington Post named it one of the top books of 2013.
At the debut of March, Lewis said, “I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The veteran Civil Rights leader, survivor of a concussion and beating from Alabama State Troopers on Bloody Sunday, asks in a new essay: “If Bloody Sunday took place in Ferguson today, would Americans be shocked enough to do anything about it?”
Lewis, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his memoir “Walking With the Wind,” sees the recent police killings of unarmed black people as representing “a glimpse of a different America most Americans have found it inconvenient to confront.”
Writing in the Atlantic, Lewis’ words are tinged with weariness. In his essay, he draws on a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., in which King tells of the “other America,” one in which justice doesn’t come easy, if at all. Black Americans have been continually “swept up like rubbish by the hard, unforgiving hand of the law,” the Georgia Congressman writes.
“Ever since black men first came to these shores we have been targets of wanton aggression,” writes Lewis, 79. “We have been maimed, drugged, lynched, burned, jailed, enslaved, chained, disfigured, dismembered, drowned, shot, and killed. As a black man, I have to ask why. What is it that drives this carnage? Is it fear? Fear of what? Why is this nation still so willing to suspend the compassion it gives freely to others when the victims are men who are black or brown?”
Lewis is still marching toward a society where African-Americans might enjoy equal protection under the law: “One recent study reports that one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day. Doesn’t that bother you?”
On the day Nelson Mandela’s body was lowered into the ground, Congressman John Lewis raised his voice half a world away to exhort the December graduates of Cleveland State University to begin lives of activism and “to get into good trouble.”
Lewis, 73, told the almost 1,000 graduates that he had been “very moved” in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the U.S. delegation to the Mandela memorial service.
“Don’t give up; don’t give in; go forth and be good citizens, not just of America, but citizens of the world,” Lewis said, connecting his listeners to Mandela’s legacy and the American Civil Rights movement. “This is your day, not mine,” he said, with more than the snowy date on the calendar in mind.
A man of stillness and humility, Lewis moved his right hand over his heart as he accepted an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State, the latest of more than 50 such academic honors. “I’m delighted and very pleased to be with you on this important occasion,” he told his hosts. “Thank you for honoring a poor boy from rural Alabama. I was not born in a big city like Cleveland.”
But he became a man of momentous deeds – an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a veteran of more than 50 arrests and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Two years after the March on Washington, Lewis and SNCC co-founder Hosea Williams started across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., leading some 600 people marching for voting rights. They were beaten and gassed, and when the vigilantes and the Alabama state police were done, they had broken Lewis’ young skull.
“I was beaten unconscious and bloody in 1965 on that bridge in Selma,” Lewis told his Cleveland State audience, “but I never, ever thought about hating anyone. Hate was too big of a burden to bear.”
Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman reminded the assembly that Lewis was aptly called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” He asked everyone to observe a moment of silence in Mandela’s memory and urged the graduates to savor the day they have earned.
Lewis entertained his listeners with boyhood stories of raising chickens, marking eggs, eating peanuts and first hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio in 1955. He described applying to Troy State University and receiving no reply. “My generation, we didn’t have an internet, we didn’t have a cell phone, but we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution.”
He urged the graduates to find their cause. “You won’t be arrested maybe. You won’t be beaten. But do your part. The way of peace, the way of love, is the better way.”
John Lewis was 17 when he met Rosa Parks; 18 when he joined forces with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Five years later, he was one of the “big six,” an architect of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington in August 1963. Standing at the Lincoln memorial, Lewis spoke sixth and King spoke tenth, stamping the day with his immortal “I Have a Dream.” Of all those who addressed the throng a half century ago, Lewis is the only one left.
Now, at 73, he has become the first member of the U.S. Congress to craft a comic book. Called “March,” it will publish August 13, the first in a trilogy written with Lewis staff member Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell, the award-winning cartoonist.
The idea isn’t as whimsical as it sounds. Aydin, a comic book enthusiast from Atlanta, knew that in 1957, a 15-cent comic entitled “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” inspired the Greensboro Four. At least one read the comic and the four students from North Carolina A&T State University decided to sit down in protest at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
Lewis himself led a group trying to integrate a Woolworth’s counter Feb. 27, 1960. They prayed and drew on the principles of non-violence. “People came up to us and spit on us and put cigarettes out in our hair,” he told listeners at the Book Expo. “I was so afraid, I felt liberated.” The episode led to jail, the first of Lewis’s more than 40 civil rights arrests.
He grew up on 110 acres in rural Alabama, the third child of sharecroppers who managed to buy the land for $300 in 1940. Young John liked to wear a tie and give sermons to the chickens. Local kids called him “preacher.” As a boy, he was instructed “not to get in the way” of whites, but he still applied for a library card in tiny Troy, Ala, where the librarian scolded him that they were only for whites.
On July 5, 1998, Lewis returned to Troy, for a book signing of his memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award that year. “At the end of the program, they gave me a library card,” he said. “It says something about how far we’ve come.”
Lewis said he initially resisted Aydin’s notion that he tell his story in a graphic format. The two were hammering up yard signs in southwest Atlanta during Lewis’ campaign for Georgia’s 5th District seat five years ago and chatting about how to teach the Civil Rights movement to 21st century youth.
“Finally, he turned around with that wonderful half-smile he can do and said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” said Aydin. “‘Let’s do it, but only if you do it with me.’ ” Aydin called this a threshold event in his life.
Watch a short interview with John Lewis and Aydin at the 2013 Book Expo America
“When you grow up without a father you spend a long part of your adolescence looking for one,” said Aydin, who is now 29. He and artist Powell said “Walking with the Wind” became their Bible as they brought Lewis’ story into the present. The trio frame the trilogy around the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.
“We took the accuracy very, very seriously,” Aydin said. Powell, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and now lives in Bloomington, Ind., is drawing the second book now. He said he emails with Aydin almost daily, and when they are unclear, they consult Lewis.
“I feel the most important thing is to capture what is not explicit in the script,” Powell, 34, said. “I am looking for the emotional resonance – the doubt, fear, unity and togetherness that characterize the Civil Rights movement but don’t come with captions.”
He said he works hard researching the clothes, food, insects and plants that give his art verisimilitude. “It is very easy to get caught up in the drama of events,” Powell said, “but there is a lot of beauty in the South, in the red soil and the bricks, the kind of walking and talking people in the South do.”
Already, Powell has told one Civil Rights story in graphic form, “The Silence of Our Friends,” set in Houston in 1967 and written by Mark Long. It explores the tested friendship of two men across race.
The Congressman dedicates “March” to “the past and future children of the movement.” He told the publishing crowd in New York that another installment is overdue.
“I believe it is time to do a little more marching,” Lewis said. “I believe it is time for us to move our feet… I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
It’s so often repeated that it has lost most of its meaning, but the old saying is true: “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Skip Gates’ latest PBS show, “Finding Your Roots” takes it one step further by connecting the past and the future. In the video above, he assists Newark mayor Cory Booker and Sen. John Lewis (1999 nonfiction winner) in exploring their past. Check out the video and let us know – what questions do you have about your past? What would you hope researchers could find out about your family?