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If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

What are you passionate about? What inspires you? What lights your soul on fire? If you set out to bring about positive change, what contribution would you make to the world?

I recently watched an excellent documentary on Congressman John Robert Lewis. The 43-minute presentation centered around Mr. Lewis’ lifetime advocacy for the expansion of civil rights in America. It is a powerful and inspiring story about courage, humility, persistence, faith and dignity. 

John Robert Lewis February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020

Many people have one or more things that they are passionate about. Quite often that “passion” is connected to personal interests or hobbies like sports, music, classic cars or antiques. Hobbies can be gratifying, but interest in them is typically driven by the pursuit of pleasure or leisure. There is a difference between being passionate about a hobby and the kind of passion that inspires a person to dedicate themselves to enabling fundamental change that positively impacts current and future generations.  

John Lewis devoted much of his life to promoting equality, justice and human rights for all people. He had a significant role in leading the March on Washington, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislation made it illegal for any place of “public accommodation” to discriminate based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” The act further banned employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

The Civil Rights Act was a victory for the basic American values of equality and freedom. It was a historic achievement not just for minorities but also for all groups who might face prejudice based merely on their sex or how they appeared to others.

John Lewis was also instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. That legislation strengthened the 15th Amendment by prohibiting states from erecting prejudicial barriers that make it hard or impossible for people to vote. The act explicitly affirms that no State or political subdivision may impose any process that denies or abridges “the right of ANY citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Both pieces of legislation had an enormously positive impact on advancing the promise that “all men are created equal.” John Lewis took tremendous risks and persevered through violent opposition to help bring positive change to our world. Through his passionate commitment to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties and building what he described as the “Beloved Community“, John Lewis helped America move closer to one of its fundamental purposes, the ongoing quest to form a more perfect union.

Congressman Lewis has frequently been called a hero and received multiple honors for his contributions to advancing American freedom. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in promoting equality and justice for Americans. He also received the first John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement for his extraordinary courage, leadership and commitment to civil rights.

When President Obama awarded John Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he honored him by calling attention to his lifetime commitment to positive change. At just 19 years old John helped form a student group dedicated to ending segregation through non-violent social activism. They began staging sit-ins at public lunch counters where blacks were refused service. In Nashville, John and fellow activists endured violent attacks by a mob of angry whites. The protestors peacefully held their seats and waited for the police. When the police finally arrived, it was John and his friends who were arrested. Later, there was a quote inscribed over the lunch counter, dedicated to John and his fellow freedom fighters that read: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

The inscription is a call to action. It is a summons to urgency and agency. It asks for leaders to step forward and not wait for another time. Answering such calls can take great courage and commitment and even self-sacrifice, traits often found in those who have a passionate belief in a better tomorrow.
John Lewis spent his life asking himself, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

There are many ways to do good in the world. Undoubtedly, some of the most profound acts of bravery, generosity and altruism are done silently, without national attention or high awards. Positive change can be inspired by the kind of momentous actions John Lewis was involved in, but transformative good often comes from millions of people amplifying those acts on a local level.

Today, with social media so ingrained in our lives, we can recognize in real-time what people seem to care about. Through posts and comments, we can gauge someone’s passion, and perhaps even their sincerity. It takes much more than reposting memes or making ill-informed outbursts on social media to have any meaningful impact on the world. How many of your social media friends are trying to bring positive change to the world? How many people do you know that demonstrate the passion and commitment of John Lewis?

I urge you to watch the documentary on Congressman Lewis, read through the legislative acts enacted through his work (12). Listen to his philosophy on the “Beloved Community.” Reflect on the incredible honor that was bestowed on John when he received the Medal of Freedom and Profile in Courage awards. Consider the level of commitment, courage and sacrifice required to bring about positive change for millions of people. Use Congressman Lewis’ legacy to inspire your own advocacy and strive to have a positive impact on the world for today, and “for generations yet unborn.”

“You too can make a contribution, and you must.” – John Robert Lewis

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