John Lewis, who participated in the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s until his death July 17, is celebrated as a key figure in the struggle of the United States to reconcile its history with slavery, racial inequality, and the dream to make America, as poet Langston Hughes put it, “that great strong land of love.”
Though Lewis grew up in the American South and spent his career as an activist and Washington legislator, far from Southwest Kansas, we at Seward County Community College are thankful for his life.
His work to ensure voting access and integrity is just as important today as the years he petitioned for Black Americans to go to the polls without fear of intimidation. His insistence on the ways of nonviolent protest continue to serve as a model for our deeply divided country.
Perhaps most important is Lewis’ affinity for optimism. As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker’s July 27 edition, “it was probably his most salient characteristic that he always refused despair; with open eyes, he acknowledged the darkest chapters of American history yet insisted that change was always possible.”
Shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer, Remnick noted, Lewis commented on the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“The protesters, he said, will ‘redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.’”
In Southwest Kansas, we know the challenges and opportunities presented by communities in flux. Our towns and industries have long reflected the mixed bag of the American Dream, with immigrant workers who arrive from Southeast Asia, Africa, Mexico and Latin America, and, on the campus of SCCC, nearly 30 foreign countries. We live in a geographic area that demands grit and collaboration — after all, the city of Liberal is named for a tradition of generosity, a willingness to serve the wider community, and to wish a fellow traveler well.
“We can all learn much from his example, which prevailed for more than 50 years of steady, unflinching yet nonviolent work to make America its best,” said SCCC President Dr. Ken Trzaska.
The local traditions and characteristics of Southwest Kansas line up neatly with Lewis’ own legacy, one of engaged citizenship that views conflict as a puzzle to unlock and differences as worth ironing out. Trzaska pointed out partnerships like the joint effort to provide COVID-19 social distancing resources for National Beef Packing employees, and the company’s subsequent donation to the College and many other entities.
“Our work with the Liberal Area Coalition for Families has also enabled us to cross barriers and provide healthy living options for our wider community, with walking paths, events on campus, healthy dining choices, and a smoke-free environment,” he said. “All these elements work to create a more holistic and equitable community.”
Local government bodies have taken new steps to open lines of communication between law enforcement and various interest groups in Liberal. The SCCC inclusiveness & civility group continues to sponsor events and training for all college team members. Casual events like the Saturday “splash and dash” fitness runs, the weekly Farmer’s Market and Liberal Memorial Library children’s and adult offerings, from crafts to free coffee, all serve to build bridges between various groups in the wider community.
Lewis would likely approve. In his later years, he urged subsequent generations to approach diversity with a kind of fearless curiosity.
“Never ever be afraid to make some noise, and get in trouble, necessary trouble,“ Lewis was known to say. He called it “good trouble.”
The Inclusiveness & Civility Mover team has compiled some resources about Lewis for further reading:
Interested in learning more about Lewis’ life? USA Today has created a brief biographical film and article that recaps the highlights of Lewis’ life and work.
Read comments from President Trump, former Presidents Obama, Bush, and Carter, as well as various justice advocates who knew and admired Lewis.
Check out this tribute by David Remnick, introducing a series of articles scheduled to appear in the New Yorker, which observes that “Dissent is an essential component of the American story and the American future. In that spirit, next week’s issue of The New Yorker will feature Profiles, reporting, essays, fiction, and poetry from the archives on this theme.” The planned subjects include Dr. King, Margaret Fuller, and Cesar Chavez, who set out to battle the established order of racism, misogyny, and exploitation. Artists, like Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, who provide the vision and the language to understand our predicament and, perhaps, to help transform it. The magazine will also feature people “like the scientist James Hansen, whose bravery is to insist on the validity of fact, when willful ignorance can lead to the catastrophic warming of the planet—or to the spread of a deadly virus.”
Lewis lobbied for decades for the creation and funding of a national museum to record the history of Black Americans. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the culmination of that work. A remembrance by the Smithsonian Institution, including a personal interview with Lewis, can be viewed here.