When I was growing up, my mother, Coretta Scott King, consistently said to us, sometimes at the dinner table, that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” This is the fourth principle of Kingian nonviolence. As a child and a teen, I did not grasp the full meaning of those words.
When I was growing up, my mother, Coretta Scott King, consistently said to us, sometimes at the dinner table, that “unearned suffering is redemptive.”
It was not until later in my life, when I had an opportunity to more diligently study the civil rights movement and observe those who sacrificed their lives, that I better understood the principle and the fortitude required to exemplify the principle. In particular, I came to see that the life of Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, whom we in my family affectionately called Uncle John, embodied this principle and demonstrated the courage of conviction to live it out.
Who knew that a vicious encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge would jump-start such an incredible legacy of leadership, from protest lines to legislative halls? Uncle John marched toward a cruel beating, not knowing that he would one day not only serve in Congress, but also serve under the first Black president of the United States. Uncle John epitomized the fourth principle of nonviolence and should serve as a constant reminder to humanity of its truth.
The most astounding thing about Congressman Lewis being left for dead on that bridge is how he got up, both physically and spiritually. When he recovered, he recovered without a trace of bitterness or hostility, and without losing hope.
After my father's assassination, Uncle John was one of a few who continued to remain committed to nonviolence as a philosophy, a methodology and as a way of life. He certainly understood my father’s wise words, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” He persisted in allowing truth, love and justice to be his guides and injected nonviolence into the halls of Congress, where it is so desperately needed.
For an idea whose time had come, Uncle John was a nonviolent warrior. From crossing that bridge in Selma under the threat of state-sanctioned, possibly life-threatening violence, to taking Freedom Rides into volatile encounters, to being handcuffed repeatedly for righteousness and justice, he persisted. He spoke truth to power, never ceasing, even as he reached four scores in age.
For the sake of a divine call, Uncle John poured out his life and built, principled brick by principled brick, with nonviolence providing him the strategy and the tools, a life of steadfast service from Alabama to Washington. He maintained a passionate stance for good in the face of a resurgence of tangible racism in the corridors of the nation’s most hallowed government buildings and across the nation. Uncle John persevered in showing up nonviolently to conflicts in Congress, fighting for people by fighting for the policies that he deemed most just.
As we determine ways to honor a life so well-lived, I believe we would be remiss if we did not passionately pursue the most relevant and powerful way to honor a man who shed blood for voting rights. Just as Congress passed the previously stalled Fair Housing Act in my father’s honor one week after he was assassinated, Congress should honor the life and the legacy of Congressman Lewis, and the life and the legacy of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, by passing a bill to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This would be a fitting way to honor this nonviolent warrior, who said “The vote is the most powerful tool we have.” More importantly than it honoring him, however, it would be a reflection that we understand the outcomes of the “good trouble” in which Congressman Lewis encouraged us to engage. This nation restoring and expanding the Voting Rights Act would truly signify the power of him meeting “physical force with soul force” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It would hold up a light to the truth of the fourth principle of nonviolence that my mother shared with me time and time again: "Unearned suffering is redemptive."
Uncle John's sacrifice matters. And I encourage this generation of activists to be inspired by his nonviolent leadership and to be compelled to bring about a new wave of nonviolent social change.