On October 1, 2013, the federal government of the United States shut down. Exactly one week later, Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., was one of more than one hundred protestors arrested as part of a rally for immigrant dignity and respect aimed at bolstering legislative efforts towards immigration reform.
Lewis, along with seven other members of Congress and dozens of activists, was taken into custody by Washington, D.C. police officers after blocking a street in front of the Capitol as a part of a peaceful sit-in.
As their colleagues on Capitol Hill rabidly participated in the seventh consecutive day of name-calling and finger-pointing in the wake of the shutdown, these eight legislators were being arrested in front of the building in which they usually govern this country. It’s hard to imagine being the officer who cuffed Lewis – a Civil Rights icon and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – but it’s also unlikely that Lewis was at all fazed by the event. It was, after all, his 45th arrest.
Although he was arrested 40 times during his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, since being elected to Congress in 1987 Lewis has been arrested five additional times: twice for protesting against apartheid in front of the South African Embassy, twice for protesting against genocide in Darfur in front of the Sudanese Embassy and then earlier this month.
On Oct. 8, I was proud of Lewis. I was proud to see a legislator who, despite the absurd lengths it required of him, was still able and eager to perform his civic duty. I felt honored to say that I had been in his office in the Capitol as part of an Emory-affiliated trip and was eager to point out that — at least while we live on and around Emory’s campus — Emory students are residents of the Lewis’ fifth congressional district.
At the time, however, I had no idea I would be meeting Lewis less than a week after this most recent arrest.
I had been planning on attending the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville over the weekend of Fall Break for months, entirely ignorant that Congressman Lewis would be there promoting the new semi-autobiographical graphic novel he co-authored about the early years of the Civil Rights movement, called “March: Book One.” (Lewis is also the first member of Congress ever to write a graphic novel.)
It wasn’t until he began speaking about his involvement with James Lawson’s sit-ins in the late 1950s and early 1960s that I realized the full significance of what it meant to meet John Lewis in Nashville.
This was the city where, as a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, Lewis had his initial encounter with the tactics of non-violent resistance and political engagement that would define the rest of his personal and professional life. Though a living legend, the only speaker from the 1963 March on Washington who is still alive today, Lewis was humbly grateful.
“Thank you, Nashville,” he said. “Thank you for helping me find a way to get into trouble — necessary trouble.” He continued, “The first time I got arrested it was in Nashville, and I felt liberated.”
Lewis’ singular example is more complex than it may appear.
He is not easily dismissed to the annals of bygone history we now easily acknowledge as a long time coming. The progress he shows us how to strive towards transcends institutional agendas but doesn’t resort to contrarian rabble-rousing.
This progress is even more radical as a result.
When the system is broken (as it was during the shutdown and arguably continues to be today), Lewis demonstrated the kind of courage that it takes to pursue justice by unconventional means— and how to get into some necessary trouble.
Logan Lockner is a College senior from Jonesborough, Tenn.
Photo courtesy of Philocrites, Flickr