“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love, and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” Congressman John Lewis

I met Congressman John Lewis for the first time when he spoke to the freshman class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA.  I remember being moved by his passion, his choice of words, and the speech he made to a group of young Black men culled from different parts of the country, embarking on a new phase of their lives. I had a clear understanding then that the Congressman, though small in stature, loomed large in presence and that his words and stance were that of a true American hero.  I never imagined that I would spend almost a quarter of a century as his Chief of Staff.

I remember Congressman John Lewis. I remember the family man who cared about his wife and child and who, after long days and weeks of fighting for social justice in the halls of Congress, would head home to Atlanta to inspire others to do the same. 

I was pleased that he called on me to stand with him, and with a mixture of pride and some anxiety, I did.  

Congressman Lewis’ greatness was that he never put himself above others.  From staff to colleagues to his constituents, he believed the fight for equality and social justice called for a unified front.  His philosophy crossed the aisle between Democrats and Republicans, and he had great friends from the deep South to the North, and across continents.   John Lewis believed in standing up against wrongs and mistreatment of any kind and felt strongly that if you are doing what is morally right, it was worth, as he would put it, “getting in some good trouble.” Today, I do what I am called to do and honor his legacy through the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. 

It was his wish that his philosophies and legacy live on and inspire others to continue the fight for America’s promise.   We, the Board Members, the staff, and those who knew him well, now focus on teaching the elements of “good trouble” to the next generation.  Congressman Lewis taught me that standing up for our civil rights was a duty and a privilege in the democracy in which we live. He taught me to go the distance, to walk the extra mile for equality and social justice, even when the going was brutal and tough. In over 20 years, we built a unique relationship, and I joined him on the front lines as we fought for human rights.  He was the first to sit down for what was right, and to the last, when he was gravely ill, he was moved to stand in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, to sacrifice his body again to show that Black Lives, like all lives, mattered. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Born during the deep segregation of the Jim Crow South, Congressman Lewis was moved at an early age by leaders like Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and by Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: “that we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice.” John Lewis, 15 years old at the time, was acutely aware of racism, and it became unacceptable and unfathomable that he would live in an America where a 14-year-old Emmitt Till could be lynched at will.  His mentor, Dr. King, said, “We have a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out.”  He wrote to Dr. King, and the letter and the stamp that he received back then are still among his treasures.  The words and the letter were a call to action for the young man from Pike County, Alabama.  A young John Lewis decided he would not let fear, the brutality of racism, and the inequalities of Jim Crow dictate the rest of his life.   It was his time to stand up, speak up, and speak out.

It is now our time to stand up and speak out.   It is our time as Americans to preserve and promote his legacy. This week, as we celebrate his life with the official public unveiling of the USPS Forever stamp and revel in the great honors bestowed upon him, including the naming of a Navy Ship FLEET USNS John R Lewis, and many other celebrations, people will ask me, as they often do, “what would John Lewis say?”  

I remember John Lewis.  I remember the man who religiously relived the trauma of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, linking arms with presidents, congresspeople, and constituents to ensure the fight for equality and human rights was never forgotten. 

Today, he would ask us to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, Affirmative Action, a woman’s right to choose, public safety, and against gun violence and anti-Semitism.  He would ask us to stand up for all those left out and left behind.  He would ask us to make good trouble in the name of all that is fair, equal, and just for all Americans.  And above all, the Congressman would ask us to exercise our right to vote.

I remember John Lewis, and on this day and every other day, I remember that he would want us to stand tall, to stand proud, and to stand for what is morally right.

Michael Collins
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