The Struggle for Voting Rights Has Not Ended | Sojourners

The Struggle for Voting Rights Has Not Ended

Thousands of protests. Forty-five arrests and 33 years in Congress. These are just a part of Congressman John Lewis’ inspirational resume. He is known as a civil rights icon, the conscience of the Congress, and, according to Congressman Jim Clyburn, “the most courageous person I have ever met.” This past weekend I had the honor of previewing John Lewis: Good Trouble (Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media), which will be released in theaters and on-demand on July 3. The film captures both Lewis’ indomitable courage and his lifetime commitment to getting into “good trouble” as a tireless champion of civil rights and defender of human dignity.

Good Trouble is a timely and deeply moving film, particularly in this moment of national awakening and reckoning around police violence and systemic racism, and as we approach what feels like the most consequential election in my lifetime. In this inflection point, sales of books about racism and white supremacy have skyrocketed as many people seek to learn more about our history and what they can do to advance the cause of racial justice. If I were compiling a list of must-see films at this time, Good Trouble would certainly be at the top of this list along with 13th, Just Mercy, Selma, and one of my all-time favorites, the groundbreaking Eyes on the Prize series, and so many more.

The film provides a snapshot of our nation’s ongoing and often brutal struggle against white supremacy and systemic racism while making it clear that struggle has not ended. I highly encourage you to not only watch the film but to encourage your congregations to take advantage of an incredible opportunity to both promote the film and raise funding for your church’s ministry in the process.As part of ‘Good Trouble Sunday,’ on July 5, houses of worship will have a special opportunity to host their own virtual cinema, offering screenings of John Lewis: Good Trouble. Houses of worship will be able to promote this virtual cinema page to their congregations to watch the film at home, knowing that a portion of their purchase will go back to support the congregation. Learn more here.

I’ve admired John Lewis for a very long time. I have been blessed to have met him on numerous occasions and was humbled when he graciously agreed to write the epilogue to my first book Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post Civil Rights Generation. While it is far too easy to take for granted the struggles that came before us, I have always believed that subsequent generations have inherited the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle, which John Lewis has never given up on and continues to fight for. I can only imagine his pride and joy watching a new generation of protesters, led by Black Lives Matter activists, rise up and generate the current moment of reckoning around police violence and systemic racism.

The film covers the breadth of Congressman John Lewis’ career of activism — from leading sit-ins in Nashville to desegregate lunch counters, to risking his life in the Freedom Rides, to his long career of public service representing the state of Georgia’s fifth congressional district. As a young leader within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis and other activists were offered the chance to pay a $50 fee or go to jail for a month. They chose jail because they believed in the power of redemptive suffering to change hearts and minds. The film also captures the brutal moment in which Lewis nearly lost his life leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has now become known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis’ concussion helped to awaken the conscience of the nation in support of voting rights. President Lyndon Johnson soon afterward addressed all of Congress, quoting for the first time the iconic words of the movement that “we shall overcome.” The film also shows John Lewis’ remarks at the March on Washington, which continue to feel relevant today, saying “we are involved in a serious social revolution … Wake up America, we will not stop and we cannot be patient.”

But it’s John Lewis’ pivotal role in helping to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the ongoing crisis of voter suppression that rightfully takes center stage in the film. Voter suppression is like a mutated gene that continues to evolve into ever more sophisticated and insidious forms. As Lewis says in the film, there are forces today that are trying to take us back to another dark period. The poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence of the 1950s and 1960s has been replaced today by the rise of strict voter ID laws, purges of voter rolls, curtailment of early voting, last-minute moving and closing of polling sites in communities of color, and many more voter suppression tactics. These tactics have marred, and even determined, far too many races in recent elections, including in 2016. As Lewis rightfully points out, “the vote is still the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.” The film is a perfect steroid to bolster ongoing efforts to combat voter suppression, including through Sojourners and the National African American Clergy Network’s initiative Lawyers and Collars and Turnout Sunday.

Congressman Lewis’ philosophy is very simple: “When you see something that isn’t right, that’s unjust, say something, do something.” Now is the time to join Lewis in his lifelong commitment to speak up and get into what he constantly refers to as “good trouble.” Ensuring a free, fair, and safe election is one of the most immediate examples of necessary trouble.

The movie ends with Congressman Lewis’s hopeful words that, “We will create the beloved community, we will redeem the soul of America … I still believe we shall overcome.” My hope is that this film and our responses to it will help make this so.

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