Remembering an American Hero
Dear Bruin Community:
Last Friday, our nation lost one of the towering figures of the American civil rights movement: longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis. He was a public servant whose self-sacrifice, character, courage and compassion made him one of the country’s most enduring examples of true leadership.
In the 1960s, Lewis was brutally beaten as he and other protesters tried to cross Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. But throughout his life, Lewis also built bridges — between people of different races, political parties and generations. With a balance of principle and compromise, he understood that a shared commitment to what is right could unite those who are different.
Congressman Lewis visited UCLA in 2017 to deliver the Winston C. Doby Distinguished Lecture and receive the UCLA Medal, our campus’s highest honor. I remember his visit most vividly for some of the wisdom he shared in his remarks at an overflowing Royce Hall.
He talked about how, as a child, he asked his family why he and other Black Americans suffered virulent racism. “That’s the way it is,” he was told. “Don’t get in the way. Don’t make any trouble.”But Lewis learned, he said, how important it could be to “get in the way” and get in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in service of equality.
At this moment in our nation’s history, as the killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women have spurred new waves of protest, activism and attention to longstanding racial justice issues, we should remember Congressman Lewis’ counsel from his 2017 memoir: “Freedom is not a state; it’s an act… Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
A true national hero, Congressman Lewis devoted his life to bringing about greater equality for Black people and other marginalized groups across the nation. It was one of my greatest privileges as chancellor to spend time with him. May he rest in peace, and may we honor his memory and his example by picking up where he left off.