I’ve seen unbelievable changes during the past 50 or 60 years. When people say, “Nothing has changed,” I feel like saying, “Come and walk in my shoes.” I truly believe that if there is faith and hope and determination, we can continue to lay progress and create an American community at peace with ourselves. The next generation will help us get there.
When I was growing up as a child in Alabama, I saw signs all around me–I saw crosses that the Klan had put up, an announcement about a Klan meeting. I saw signs that said White, colored, white men, colored men, white women, colored women. There were places where we couldn’t go. But we brought those signs down. The only place you will see those signs today will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. When I was growing up, the great majority of African Americans could not participate in a democratic process in the South. They could not register to vote. But we changed that. When I first came to Washington to go on the freedom rides in 1961, black people and white people couldn’t be seated together on a Greyhound bus leaving this city. They travel to the South without being beaten, arrested and jailed.
Now all across the South and all across America there are elected officials who are people of color. In the recent elections in Virginia and some other places around the country, you saw more people of color and more women getting elected to positions of power. They are African American, they’re Latino, Asian American, Native American. Our country is a much better place–a much different place–in spite of all the setbacks and interruptions of progress.
I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say on many occasions, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I still believe we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America, and in doing so we will inspire people around the world to stand up and speak out. I believe that it’s true today, and it was true when Dr. King said it years ago. I tell friends and family, colleagues and especially young people that when you see something that’s not right or fair, you have to do something, you have to speak up, you have to get in the way. When I was growing up, my mother and father and grandparents would tell me, “Don’t get in trouble. This is the way it is.” But then I heard Dr. King speak when I was 15. To hear him preach, to be in a discussion with him sitting on the floor, or in a car, or at a meeting in a restaurant or a church, or just walking together … He instilled something within us. I never in my years around him saw him down. Never saw him hostile or mean to a single person.
Dr. King and others inspired me to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And I think we’re going to have generations for years to come that will be prepared to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And lead us to higher heights. It’s a struggle that doesn’t last one day, one week, one month, one year. It is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe many lifetimes.
The next generation will help make this society less conscious of race. There will be less racism, there will be more tolerance. Dr. King said we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. There was a man by the name of A. Philip Randolph, from Jackson-ville, Fla., who moved to New York City and became a champion of civil rights, human rights and labor rights. At the March on Washington in 1963 he said, “Remember our mothers and our fore-fathers all came to this great land in different ships. But we’re all in the same boat now.” That is true today.
You have to be hopeful. You have to be optimistic. If not, you will get lost in despair. When I travel around the country, I say, “Don’t get down–you cannot get down.” I’m not down. I got arrested, beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I haven’t given up. And you cannot give up.
Lewis is a civil rights leader and Congressman from Georgia
This appears in the January 15, 2018 issue of TIME.
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