Honoring a Civil Rights Hero
“Tell them they have to have hope, no matter what. If they get knocked down, they have to get back up.” That is what Congressman John Lewis—this year’s recipient of Liberty Hill’s Upton Sinclair Award—told me when I asked him what he would say to our youth leaders in L.A.
As one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important figures, John Lewis has left an indelible mark on American history. At age 23, he spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington—which he was also instrumental in organizing—and in 1965, he led more than 600 demonstrators across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, in one of the movement’s most powerful moments. As an activist, John Lewis has endured numerous arrests, physical attacks and threats to his life, all while remaining a staunch adherent to nonviolence. Today he is no less committed to the ideals of justice and equity. As a member of Congress, representing Georgia’s 5th District, he is an unwavering progressive voice and one of the Trump administration’s fiercest critics.
Congressman Lewis’ advice for young activists may be simple, but it rings incredibly true—particularly when considering the threads connecting the Civil Rights Movement to today’s struggles for racial justice. When Congressman Lewis began fighting alongside Martin Luther King Jr., he was challenging legally backed segregation, hatred and violence. Despite the monumental achievements of that movement that transformed America, it is all too clear in today’s political climate that issues of systemic racism are still ingrained, even in deep blue California.
Liberty Hill has always prioritized movements for racial justice, and the problems we are taking on as part of the Agenda for a Just Future are linked to the same fight that John Lewis began leading as a young man. When it comes to youth incarceration, the victims of criminalization are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. Oil wells in affluent areas are subject to stringent health and safety regulations to protect neighbors, while residents in South L.A. are made sick by the noisy, polluting and dangerous facilities within feet of their homes. At the same time, communities of color are the first to be displaced by gentrification. Within each of these campaigns there is a fight for racial justice that echoes the legacy of John Lewis, and inevitably intersects with struggles for LGBTQ justice, environmental justice, economic justice—and ultimately, civil rights.
In this time of national turmoil, it’s easy to forget that the most impactful struggles for justice start locally. When I asked John Lewis how we should adapt social movement strategies to our current political environment, and approach those who uphold injustice, he said, “Meet them where they are.” He was calling for innovative inside/outside strategies tailored to our time and our targets. The forces of oppression wield weapons that are less physically violent than those of the Civil Rights era, but they are no less harmful. They require different strategies to expose and combat them. With the Agenda for a Just Future, we are using every tool at our disposal to win the most important struggles equity and opportunity in Los Angeles today.
Congressman Lewis’ words make it clear to me that we have a responsibility to shine a light on injustice and lead the way to a better world. I feel proud to know that L.A.’s organizers, and Liberty Hill, are doing just that.
Shane Murphy Goldsmith
President & CEO