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Kerry Kennedy tells how civil rights leader and close friend John Lewis shaped the purpose of human rights advocacy organization Robert F Kennedy Human Rights

For myself, and for many members of the Kennedy family, John Lewis was a continual and steady presence in our lives. 

He was a father figure to us, he shared a special bond with my mother, Ethel, and he was a guiding force in helping Robert F Kennedy Human Rights become the organization it is today. In everything he did, he utilized and channeled purpose.

That’s exactly why we recently renamed our program for college-aged human rights defenders across the country for him, as the John Lewis Young Leaders Program. 

That program, which has existed since 2017, was formally rebranded in September in Los Angeles, convening some of the best and brightest young people around the country. It is designed, in so many ways, to encapsulate the things he so valued. Courage. Truth. Community.

The Freedom Rider

If there is a particular day that stands out in my mind that encapsulates exactly what he meant to us and to the world, it is from one spring 15 years ago, during the annual Faith and Politics Pilgrimage to Selma, the march John led to commemorate Bloody Sunday.

That day, John took a seat not in the buses that held powerful members of Congress and major donors. Instead, he chose the one that held my mom, my nine- and 11-year-old daughters, a bunch of siblings and cousins, and dozens of my nieces and nephews, mostly young teens – 40 Kennedys and John Lewis.

As we began our trip, he stood behind the driver, and recalled his mother’s warning not to get into trouble. But civil rights work, he told us, was different. It was ‘good trouble’.

He told us about being a Freedom Rider, the group of 13 women and men, black and white, who confronted Jim Crow and the Interstate Commerce clause, riding Greyhound buses across the South in 1961. 

John Lewis and James Zwerg stand together after being attacked and beaten by pro-segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, 20th May 1961

When they reached Montgomery, the police escort that Daddy had negotiated with the governor abandoned the riders, and an enraged mob of Klansmen and other white supremacists, attacked the riders with baseball bats and table legs. 

John told us that he made his way to Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church. He said a few hundred parishioners huddled themselves in the pews and sang ‘We shall overcome’. 

Meanwhile the mob, now 5,000 strong, shouted racial epithets, and hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails through the sanctuary’s shattered stained glass. He said Dr King, Reverend Abernathy and John called Daddy from the church basement to bring in the National Guard to disperse the mob. He said: “Kerry, if not for your father, I might not be alive today.”

Love, Wisdom and Compassion

When I was a child, Daddy told us that there was no group he admired more than the Freedom Riders. John’s courage was integral to my father’s commitment to civil rights, giving a clear voice to the struggle to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.

When Daddy ran for president, he asked John to help organize the Black community in Indiana. Working with local organizers, John arranged Daddy’s largest Black rally in the state, in Indianapolis, on 4 April 1968.

When Daddy’s campaign plane landed in Indianapolis, Mayor Richard Lugar called and begged him not to go to John’s rally. Daddy asked John for his advice. John said for him to come. Daddy went. Standing side by side with John that night, Daddy delivered the shocking news of Reverend King’s death to the crowd.

He said: “For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed by a white man.

Representative John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus wait to enter as a group to attend the memorial services of US Representative Elijah Cummings at the US Capitol, 2019

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”

That night, 125 cities went up in flames. Dover Delaware was under martial law for nine months. In large part because of John and Daddy’s work in the community together over the last five years, Indianapolis remained calm.

A few weeks later, John, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were organizing the Get Out the Vote effort in California. Just imagine opening your door to find that trio urging you to vote for a candidate. No wonder Daddy won. John was at the Ambassador Hotel the night of the primary when a terrorist killed my father. 

Ripples of Hope

John cried, he told me, all the way home to Atlanta. Along with my brothers and uncle Teddy, John was a pallbearer at my father’s funeral and sat with us on that eight-hour train ride from St Patrick’s Cathedral to Union Station. When we reached Washington, the funeral cortege drove right along the encampments of the poor people’s campaign and John and the crowd broke out singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

John didn’t have to remain a steady presence in our lives in the years that followed. But he chose to, and exactly what that meant for us is difficult to put into words. 

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At Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, he sat on the board for decades. He was a critical force designing our programs, an inspiration for our Speak Truth to Power lesson plans for students, and a recipient of the Robert F Kennedy Ripple of Hope award.

My last long conversation with John came as I was writing my book Ripples of Hope in 2018. I asked him how he felt then, four-and-half decades after being bludgeoned by state troopers. He replied with one word: “Grateful.”

I am grateful, too. Grateful for John’s moral courage. For his loving heart. Grateful he used his time on this earth to advance the causes of civil rights and social justice, cementing himself as one of the last remaining unifying forces in American politics. Grateful for his ability to speak truth to power, be it over the Iraq War, over gun violence, or over the structural racism that pervades American society.

I miss him every day. But it is through this revitalized Young Leaders program that I hope that gratefulness will be conveyed to the world at large. In such a vital election year, to see the torch of purpose carried by a new, powerful generation to demand better access to the ballot box seems a fitting way to honor John.

It is through both harnessing the past and channeling the future that we recommit ourselves to his idea of good trouble.

Kerry Kennedy is a human rights lawyer and president of Robert F Kennedy Human Rights.

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