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Living Into The Legacy of John Lewis: Continuing The Work for Human Rights

John Lewis set a high bar for social justice work in the United States and beyond.

By Rev. Mary Katherine Morn on July 23, 2020

“I believe something was imbued, planted within me as a child. I didn’t like what I saw, [I] asked my mother, asked my father…my grandparents, my great grandparents, and they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’”—U.S. Rep. John Lewis

In 2015, UUSC had the distinct honor of awarding U.S. Rep. John Lewis with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Leadership Award to acknowledge and celebrate his legendary work as a social justice activist.

From his historic work to co-organize the 1963 March on Washington and leading the peaceful Selma to Montgomery, AL racial justice march that infamously became known as “Bloody Sunday” when nonviolent participants were attacked by the police, to his transformative leadership as a Georgia congressman for 17 terms, Lewis’ legacy is one that will go down in history as deeply impacting the social, political, and racial fabric of our nation. The courage and commitment of so many he touched will continue to live on.

At UUSC’s human rights celebration, author and activist Dr. Cornel West celebrated Lewis as a “spiritual giant and moral titan” and spoke to the “spiritual crisis” we were experiencing as a nation. Five years later and we’re still in the midst of a deep, global spiritual crisis. Across the world, we’re facing a pandemic that will indelibly change how we relate to one another; a climate crisis and the displacement and destruction it causes; devastating acts of genocide; unprecedented levels of forced migration, poverty, conflict, and oppression. In the United States, we’re seeing the highest death toll in the world from the coronavirus; racial unrest; deep chasms between many of us based on partisan politics; and unsettling acts by the nation’s own president to weaponize the federal government against protesters.

In his remarks at the awards ceremony, Lewis shared that as a child, his insatiable curiosity and desire to see justice done in the world drove him to ask questions. He could not accept, “That’s just the way things are.” He would not stay out of trouble.

“I went to Sunday school, I went to church,” he said. “And what they were telling me…I felt was not in keeping with the teachings of the Great Teacher. And I had to do something about it. My mother used to accuse me of being nosy and wanting to know too much. But, I was grounded with something. When I heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and heard about Rosa Parks…it started a fire burning, and it’s been burning ever since.”

That image of ignition, of a fire being sparked and burning, brings to mind  the flaming chalice, a sacred symbol for so many Unitarian Universalists, born in part from UUSC’s own founding in World War II. The chalice flame is a spark that lights an unquenchable fire within us, and that fire stands for many things: Justice, peace, love, balance, connection, community, and transformation. The flaming chalice, to me, feels like a call to commitment and action, a call to see injustice, oppression, trauma, and suffering and to say, “Enough.”

That fire was sparked in Lewis in his teenage years and it never died. He devoted his life, his  career, his being, to seeing justice done, not just for his Georgia constituents, but across the nation.

Hope Johnson (Photo courtesy of UUA)

“One of my proudest moments as a UU leader was meeting Congressman John Lewis at General Assembly in 2015 when he received UUSC’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights Leadership,” said Hope Johnson, a former UUSC board member. “To meet one of the key persons who inspired me to do my part in fighting for justice and equity for all was a dream come true. I have worked with UUSC ever since I understood all that it does and has done for so many in our world. What began in 1940 with a focus on Europe has morphed into a world-wide effort at ‘getting in the way’ in the struggle for justice. Though I am not on the front lines, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, I’m convinced that now it’s our turn to ‘get in the way!’”

Representative Lewis’ legacy calls each of us to some tough work, the work of “getting in the way” of oppression and injustice.

We’re living in times marked by dramatic inequality and division: a global pandemic; the murder of George Floyd; the death of Breonna Taylor; government-sanctioned kidnappings in Portland (and soon, we fear, in Chicago); a world-changing U.S. presidential election just months away.

In this moment, each and every one of us has the opportunity to serve as a moral counterweight. We must strive to face these issues and continue to grow in our ability to see, understand, and live into our kinship with one another. In a time when we too often strip others of their personhood based on their identities or their actions, we are called to do the revolutionary, liberating work of seeing each other’s humanity.

As we venture into the second half of 2020, I carry the legacy of John Lewis in my heart and channel his spirit for the days, weeks, and months ahead. Most importantly, I take pride in knowing that Lewis’ flame lives on in so many of us dedicated to seeing a world with justice, compassion, peace, and filled with a loving, global community that sees beyond differences and embraces the core of our humanity.


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: UUSC

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