Congressman John Lewis: A champion for civil rights and environmental justice
I remember the first time I met Congressman John Lewis like it was yesterday. He extended his hand and asked the simple question, “Who are you?” I responded with my name and he said, “No, young man, who ARE you?”
Fortunately, I figured out he wasn’t asking my name; he wanted to know who and what I stand for, and who and what I fight for. After all, according to Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), the answers to those questions truly define who you are. This first interaction left an indelible mark that I carry with me to this day, and drives my advocacy for social and environmental justice.
A good friend once described John Lewis as one of the best humans to ever walk the planet. I would have to agree. I was blessed to share space with him and be mentored and guided by him — and I watched in awe his unapologetic love for mankind and unwavering fight for justice.
He said so many things over the years that touched me deeply, but two John Lewis quotes continue to inspire me in everything I stand and fight for. The first, from his 2018 commencement speech at Harvard, he said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
And the second, a powerful address he made on the House floor in December 2019 saying, “You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.'”
John Lewis always did something, and everything he did was approached with grit, integrity, intellect and compassion. Among all of the Congressman’s “somethings,” he will be honored for the endless sacrifices that he made for his people, his community and his country until the very end of his 80 years on this earth.
We will remember the iconic and horrific photos of the beatings that he took, the marches through hostile territory and, importantly, how he rose above hatred to become one of our country’s greatest leaders — not only through words, but also deeds.
Congressman Lewis will be remembered in the annals of history as a champion for the right to vote and for his work to ensure that the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, honored and implemented. We all have witnessed the attacks and rollbacks on that historic legislation and the assaults by our current administration.
I will remember and honor Congressman Lewis’s pioneering advocacy of environmental justice for all. He understood that the same platform of systemic racism that disenfranchised people from the civic process also poisoned the air and water in Black, Brown and lower-wealth communities. He understood that living in these sacrifice zones was killing our people, just like the nooses in trees that once bore the strange fruit of African American men, women and children across the Jim Crow south.
Congressman Lewis believed in pushing for change no matter how hard the fight. So, in 1992, he introduced the first piece of legislation focused on addressing the disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities of color: the Environmental Justice Act.
This proposed act was dedicated to abolishing racial disparities in how environmental protection was applied. He introduced this law along with his colleague in the upper chamber, then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, who was one of the earliest champions in the federal government for the cause.
Two years later, then-Vice President Gore worked with Rep. Lewis and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to get executive order 12898 over the finish line under President Bill Clinton, who signed it.
In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) honored John Lewis with the “Environmental Justice Champion” award for his groundbreaking and tireless work to end environmental racism and heal communities that for far too long had been unheard and unseen. A year later he authored H.R.4645, The Environmental Justice Act of 2016, to increase economic support for environmental justice communities and projects.
Congressman Lewis also helped us to better understand that if we were going to win on climate change, we had to understand the intersectionality of environmental injustice, conservation and our connection to Mother Earth. As he so elegantly explained:
“When we take our air, waters and land for granted; when we show a simple lack of respect for nature and our environment, we unmake God’s good creation. Humanity is the most important endangered species under threat from climate change and yet we flood our ecology with poisons and pollution. It is my belief that our country needs better environmental protections and that real protections do not have to come at the expense of jobs or our economy. Whatever we do to the earth, we do to each other.”
The Congressman’s commitment to education and racial justice played out in his support for the next generation of leaders. His lessons and sacrifices can be seen in the eyes and actions of young leaders as they lead 21st century fights for civil rights, environmental justice and ensuring that black lives matter.
He would often remind people to not forget the words of Martin Luther King:
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.
In honor of the late, great and beloved Congressman John Lewis, let all Americans come together to ensure that we pass legislation to renew the Voting Rights Act, and to ensure that environmental justice becomes a reality for all. Until that day comes, let’s be bold, brave, courageous and find a way as he said, “to get into good trouble, to get into necessary trouble,” until justice is won.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, founder and CEO of Revitalization Strategies, a member of the Environmental Protection Network, and vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, served as associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice for more than two decades.