The American Historian

Good Trouble Making

George Sanchez

On July 17, 2020, we lost an American icon and a personal hero of mine, Congressman John Lewis. I was born twenty years after Lewis, when he was becoming a civil rights pioneer as a young man at Fisk University and as a leader among students involved in desegregating downtown Nashville, Tennessee, lunch counters through nonviolent protest. Lewis’ bravery and determination for equality was legendary, and he put his literal body on the line over and over again in the pursuit of justice. As a young activist, Lewis got beaten and bloodied as a Freedom Rider, forcing the federal government to intervene to defend laws of integration in interstate commerce in the segregated South. As the elected head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington in Washington, D.C. In his most famous action, Lewis led a group of protesters to Montgomery over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were stopped and beaten by Alabama state troopers. John Lewis’ skull was fractured for spearheading a march for the right to vote, and the marchers’ collective sacrifice and actions led the U.S. government to pass the Voting Rights Bill in 1965.

In 1986, John Lewis won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing most of Atlanta, and served there for seventeen terms. He became the “conscience of the Congress” by being one of its most effective liberal legislators, leading support for gay rights, gun control, and national health insurance, among many other issues. Lewis was a staunch advocate for memorializing the civil rights movement into U.S. history, sponsoring legislation to induct the route from Selma to Montgomery as part of the Historic National Trails program and to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Even as he became an institutional presence in Congress, Lewis continued to remind his colleagues that they needed to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the streets and through protest if they were truly to become effective legislators. In the end, he was arrested more than forty times during his lifetime, including several times after he was elected to Congress. His own life demonstrated this duality in his approach to politics—that individual access is never enough—and that is a major reason his life appealed to me as a young student and scholar.

Like many of my generation, I got to know the life of John Lewis first through my readings on the civil rights movement as an undergraduate and graduate student, but then, most vividly through the television series Eyes on the Prize, which premiered about the time Lewis entered Congress. As a child of immigrants and a first-generation college student, I was taken by Lewis’ climb from a poor sharecropping family in Troy, Alabama, to become the first in his family to attend college. But I was particularly moved by his bravery as a student and his willingness to risk his life and his future by leading actions through his commitment to nonviolent protest. In my own time in college, my first active protests were for affirmative action and disinvestment in companies operating in South Africa. But I always felt that it was important to not stop at protesting. So when given a chance, I got involved in these issues through my work in college admissions and building a network of student activists against apartheid.

An activist to the end, John Lewis wrote a final essay shortly before his death directed to the new generation of Black Lives Matter activists, and he asked his staff not to release it until the morning of his funeral, July 30, 2020. He wrote, “while my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society.” Lewis connected his generation of activists with the current ones, saying “Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me.”

In recalling when he first heard the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, he remembered that “he said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”

This summer, the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd once again forced the United States to reckon with the pervasiveness of racial violence and the systematic oppression of police brutality against African Americans, as acknowledged by Congressman John Lewis. For universities, it has pushed academic leadership to recognize the continued discrimination felt by students and faculty of color on campus, and to once again acknowledge the failure of colleges to adequately diversify their own faculty and teaching corps to address the recurring needs of students of color. In our historical profession, while we increasingly acknowledge the centrality of race, gender, and sexuality in U.S. history, we often fail to address the overriding need to rapidly produce a more diverse generation of professors who can lead American history to new scholarship and new curriculum for the twenty-first century.

In my own career, I have tried to exemplify the call to make “good trouble” by committing myself to preparing, training, and placing the next generation of diverse graduate students from the very beginning of my time as a faculty member. I have mentored over forty Ph.D. students who are now in tenure-track academic positions, most of them first-generation college students who are also students of color, most especially Latinos. I also have run the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows program at USC for a decade and been a mentor to many undergraduates who have gone on to graduate school in history, American Studies, and related disciplines. For this work, I received the first ever individual Equity Award from the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2011.

But I also was asked by the AHA to evaluate the historical profession in its commitment to diversity at the beginning of the twenty-first century as a member of its African, Latino, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) Committee. The research I conducted for the AHA was eye opening for me and was eventually published during 2007 in AHA Perspectives in an article entitled “Confronting a Crisis in the Historical Profession.” I came to realize that in the wider historical profession, this commitment had been very uneven and sporadic. For example, the year with the most African Americans in the process of completing a history PhD was 1975, and that number has been dropping steadily since. Even more startling was the fact that as of 2005, one-third of all History Departments who offer the history Ph.D. had never graduated an African American student. In short, if it wasn’t for a handful of universities, such as Howard, Duke, and UCLA, there would be virtually no African Americans in the historical profession. And things have not changed much since the identification of that “crisis” thirteen years ago. It’s clear that as historians, we still have a long way to go.

So I would ask all of us to take to heart John Lewis’ final words as he left this earth and apply them to our work in the historical profession: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring. When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Author

George J. Sánchez is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy.  He is the author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, and editor of Beyond Alliances: The Jewish Role in Reshaping the Racial Landscape of Southern California, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina, and Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures. His current book project is titled Laboratory of Democracy: Race, Immigration and Community in Boyle Heights, California.