Good trouble

Justine Toh reflects on the life of U.S. civil rights icon John Lewis, and how he stood up for truth even in the face of state violence.

‘Which terrorist had the greatest impact on the world?’ is a thought experiment my teacher friend likes to conduct with his students.

Osama bin Laden, they tend to say.

But for my friend, Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned by the South African government for terrorism, still comes second to the greatest terrorist of all time: Jesus Christ, who was crucified as a warning to those who would dare oppose the might of Rome.

The point of the exercise is to observe that those often perceived as the greatest threat to a corrupt system are often the ones who bring lasting change to it.

I’m not sure how my friend would rate the contribution of U.S. civil rights icon John Lewis, who died a week ago from pancreatic cancer. But Lewis, along with his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., tirelessly resisted racial injustice in all its insidious and explicit forms—often at great personal cost.

Lewis was arrested dozens of times. Televised footage of Lewis being beaten during what became known as the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama shocked the nation. The ensuing outrage was instrumental in granting African Americans voting rights in 1965.

Lewis was later elected to U.S. Congress. Upon his death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid tribute to him as “the conscience of the Congress”.

Like other ‘terrorists’ who would make it on to my friend’s list, Lewis stood up for truth and resisted evil, even if his stubborn righteousness attracted the violence of the state.

His philosophy is one that should inspire us all: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.”