Lessons from the Life of John Lewis

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be working at Harvard’s 367th Commencement ceremony, at which John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. In his speech, he encouraged everyone in attendance to make “necessary trouble” and stand up for justice, “even when injustice wears a uniform.”

Mr. Lewis’s death last Friday has caused me – along with many of you – to reflect on what I have learned, and can continue to learn, from his legacy as we strive for a more equitable world.

Lewis, of course, was the youngest, last surviving member of the “big six,” a group of prominent leaders of the Civil Rights era that included Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Whitney Young, and A. Philip Randolph. As some profiles have pointed out, the “big six” bridged a previous era with our modern world – the oldest member, A. Philip Randolph, was born in 1889 and had unionized Black railroad porters in 1925, offering them and their children a pathway from poverty to the middle class.

So as we work to make our own workplaces and communities more equitable and authentic, what are some lessons we can take away from this Civil Rights icon and teller of truth?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Practice the Value of Impatience – In his draft remarks for the 1963 March on Washington, he wrote, “‘Patience’ is a dirty and nasty word.” This is a sentiment he embodied throughout his life. Where change was necessary, Lewis demanded — and earned — a seat at the table. He was 21 when he became one of the original Freedom Riders, 23 when he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and 25 when he led the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Where you see brokenness or inequity in your workplace and your wider communities, ask yourself where you could practice more impatience in bringing about change.
  2. Don’t Walk Away – There were many times in Lewis’s life where he could have walked away, either after defeat or success – after being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; after the 1964 Civil Rights Act; after losing his first bid for Congress; after the election of the first African-American President. But still he continued to make a difference way beyond his congressional district. Where are you tempted to walk away from challenges in your own workplace and beyond? What if you stuck with it?
  3. Speak a Consistent Message – Lewis famously practiced preaching to his chickens at a young age. In 2015, while discussing his graphic novel memoir series March at the San Diego Comic-Con, he cosplayed as his 25 year-old self, wearing trench coat, shirt and tie, and a backpack that held fruit, a toothbrush and books, and led a “parade of purpose” with hundreds of children and adults. His message was always one of equity and inclusion. How consistent is your message?
  4. Match Your Actions to Your Beliefs – Lewis did not hold a narrow view of his commitment to Civil Rights, supporting the LGBTQ community, opposing the Iraq war, and staging a sit-in on the House floor in support of anti-gun violence legislation. This week, take a look at where your actions – or inactions – don’t fully match your beliefs, and take some steps to bring them back into alignment.

Try putting these into action this week. And share your experience – or your own lessons from John Lewis’s life – on our Facebook group!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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