The world recently said goodbye to lifetime civil rights activist and long-serving member of the United States House of Representatives, John Lewis.
In one of his most famous quotes, Lewis stated, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to do something.”
Lewis lived by these words. At the age of 23, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. He devoted his life to speaking up, advocating for peaceful resistance, doing all he could to right what’s wrong in the world, even if it meant being beaten or arrested.
I find the statement, “You have to do something” quite perplexing, however. What do I have to do? How will I know it’s the right thing to do?
Social values and the media tell me that the right thing to do is to achieve wealth and fame, to be a ‘winner,’ no matter the cost.
In my quest to understand the right thing to do, I began to study the ideals embraced by people of goodwill, people like Lewis, who were really making a difference in the world.
In recent years, educators in British Columbia have been invited to embrace Indigenous principles in the classroom. As I explored these, the light finally began to go on. I realized that the “something” Lewis was talking about meant to live according to what are often referred to as the Seven Grandfather Teachings. As I began applying them to the world around me, it came clear that they’re the same principles so central in the lives of the people I admired.
Humility. People who knew Lewis remarked that he was a humble man who not only put others at ease, he empowered them to use their gifts to change the world.
Honesty. How often is honesty sacrificed at the altar of wealth and power?
To make a difference in the world, we need to be people of integrity and integrity requires that we be honest, especially with ourselves. Lewis was a man of uncompromising integrity.
Respect. We can’t do the right thing unless we respect ourselves and our neighbours. Lewis showed how he could stand his ground in opposition to another person’s point of view while treating them with dignity.
Courage. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was arrested at least 40 times, and even had his skull fractured by violent policemen on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala. Lewis knew the meaning of courage.
Truth. We must be on a constant quest for the truth. So often, we try to bury the truth, but this always leads to disaster and humiliation. People of all political stripes from all over the world honour Lewis and will continue to do so because he was a man of truth.
Wisdom. As we live by these principles, we gain wisdom. Lewis taught us by his life what it means to make the world a better place.
Love. This is the greatest commandment, central to all sacred teachings. In 2009, Lewis accepted the apology of Elwin Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan member who beat him when he walked into a whites-only waiting room at a southern bus station as a Freedom Rider in 1961.
Has there ever been a more poignant demonstration of love and reconciliation in American history?
There’s still much that’s not right and not fair in the world. John Lewis told us to do something about it and he showed us what that meant. That is his legacy.
The rest is up to us.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.