The 'Good Trouble' man
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One of the high-water marks of my life was the considerable amount of time during my youthful years I spent in the company of some of this nation's most significant souls of the last century. Those names include: Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.K. Steele, James Lawson, C.T Vivian, Joseph E. Lowery, C.L. Franklin, and, of course, John R. Lewis. All but John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules Lobbying world Patagonia to donate million to Georgia voting rights groups MORE were members of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which I became the Mid-West Regional Vice President and founder of several chapters, including the affiliate in Kansas City, Mo. Looking back at that time reminds me of the words recorded in Genesis 6:4: "There were giants in the earth in those days."

John Lewis was—at a whopping 5'9''—unmistakably a giant among giants.

Although John was one of the founders of the more aggressive Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he never strayed too far from friend Dr. Martin Luther King, the president of SCLC. I first met John during the late ’70s when he briefly attended the Birmingham, Ala., convention of the SCLC, hosted by Dr. Nelson “Fireball” Smith and the Pilgrim Baptist Church.


My memory of that first meeting is so clear. I spoke to John in the vestibule of the church as the conference recessed for lunch. I nervously said, "hello, sir, my name is Emanuel Cleaver." He not only returned the greeting, but, as I thought to myself, "yea I am reverend nobody," he lingered and called me, "young brother" and asked from where I had come. John awarded me, with his courtesy, a major moment in my young life. I believed then that I was truly in the presence of pure-hearted humility. And after more than 40 years of friendship, I still believe it.

I do wonder, after all these years, whether he knows my real name. Because, although we both have changed quite a bit since those painfully exciting early days, the last time we spoke he still referred to me as “young brother.” While Father Time may have taken its toll on our physical beings, the one thing that did not change was his immaculate humility.

After receiving just about every major award imaginable, he died without realizing his specialness. During my meditation on the day after John's death, it occurred to me that a lion never struts to get attention, and make no mistake, John was a lion all the way to the end. The great poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "a great man is always willing to be little." That causes me to wonder if he knew that one day, way down in the Mississippi Delta, John Lewis would be born.

As the moral leader of the Democratic caucus, John always urged, "Be bold!" That is the reason Democrats pushed hard to get the Affordable Care Act passed into law. It was his demand for boldness that pushed the Congressional Black Caucus to develop and usher through the House, The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Finally, John Lewis constantly urged young people to get into "Good Trouble." By that, he meant that if they saw wrong, they must seek to make it right. If they saw war, they must try to stop it. If they saw poverty, they must work to end it. He warned that those actions would surely generate a strong and hostile counteraction. It will get you in trouble, Lewis would teach. But that is “Good Trouble,” and there is a sacredness in standing up against wrong.


In his very last public act of Good Trouble, John Lewis, the lion in winter, joined young activists at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. He spoke of peace even in the midst of a creeping militarism. He spoke of unity at a time when outside forces seek to divide. And he spoke of love as our guiding light through the darkest of times.

As this next generation of Americans take their stand against institutional inequalities and march against the injustices in our society, I can only hope that they will give attention to the treasure trove of lessons left behind in news reels, books, speeches, interviews, and oral presentations from the friends and family of the "Good Trouble" Man, John R. Lewis.

Cleaver represents the 5th District of Missouri and served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2011-2013.