Howard_Thurman (1899-1981) was Dean of the Chapel at historic Howard University. He laid the groundwork for understanding the old spiritual "Wade in the Water." We ought to look at its lyrics, content and meaning as corollary to the events of the civil rights movement. For, the civil rights movement was the stage that was set for Freedom Summer and the Freedom Rides. In Thurman's book The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Thurman submitted that, “For [the slaves] the ‘troubled waters’ meant the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life. Within the context of the ‘troubled’ waters of life there are healing waters, because God is in the midst of the turmoil.”
With all the work he did and purposed to do, John Robert Lewis may as well have lived a thousand lives. All very full. Much of it in troubled waters.
There’s little I could tell you that you probably do not already know, or did not already hear in the days immediately following his death in the summer of 2020. Still, I’ll hit a few of his highlights here.
Born in Alabama in 1940, Lewis was a son of sharecroppers and one of ten kids. He grew up materially poor but inspirationally rich. Full of questions about the injustices he saw around him and the indignities he experienced growing up, he developed a healthy curiosity about law and human rights.
Lewis finished high school and, inspired by a number of theologians including Billy Graham, and especially Martin Luther King, Jr., he went to and graduated from seminary, a fully ordained Baptist minister. He then followed his years of seminary with bachelor’s study and a degree in religion and philosophy.
During his religion and philosophy years, he took more than a keen interest in the growing civil rights movement. He simultaneously organized civil rights sit-ins, boycotts and other forms of protest. He later attended nonviolence workshops, learned the principles of peaceful protest, and dedicated the rest of his life to them. He and 12 other peers, both black and white, took on the challenge in 1961 to become the first Freedom Riders. A more than valiant effort to pressure southern states to uphold the law of the land which had declared in 1960 that segregation on interstate buses was illegal. A statute the southern states seemed to be ignoring. Roughly 400 others would follow in their footsteps within a year.
When the Freedom Ride initiative almost folded due to a strenuous amount of violent backlash, Lewis and civil rights student strategist Diane Nash, worked to get it back up and running. Then in 1963, Lewis stepped up as chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Already having been arrested 24 of the more than 40 times he’d eventually be locked up, he’d more than earned the respect and trust required to hold the position.
Lewis was one of the organizers of the March on Washington. He led the first of three Selma marches and led voter registration activities.
That all of this activity spanned the slim number of years through college and a short time thereafter…I’m already out of breath. And, beginning government work in earnest in 1977 and marching on until his passing in 2020, John Lewis accomplished so much in the years following.
In the boxing match of life, Lewis was the original T-1000. He got knocked down an awful lot, but he always got back up. He saw the troubled water, willingly entered into it, essentially stayed in it, and never stopped wading. His was a life full of good trouble.
As John Lewis was being laid to rest, President Barack Obama, exhorting us to follow Lewis’ example, referred to him as a “founding father of” the “fuller, fairer, better America.” I and my husband, an artist activist, refer to Lewis as one of The Big 3: the other Hamilton (Mary Hamilton), the other Rosas (including the Freedom Riders), and the other founding father, Lewis himself.
Lewis was a founding father of the America so many have hoped, fought and died for. The place and aspiration that as many still hope, fight and die for. John Lewis had a name for this hoping, fighting and dying. Though his mother had protectively responded to his natural inquisitiveness and need to question injustice by telling him to stay out of the way, keep a low profile and stay out of trouble, John was heaven bent on steering in the opposite direction, eventually getting into what he would call “good trouble,” and plenty of it.
In his treatise on "Wade In The Water" Thurman concluded that one should, “not shrink from moving confidently out into the choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.”
On this side of heaven, there's a lot of troubled water. And wading is akin to entering into good trouble. Good trouble before Jim Crow. Good trouble during Jim Crow. Good trouble Lewis was at the forefront of during the civil rights movement. And, given the ongoing disposition of humanity, with man's great and relentless ability to be inhumane...good trouble and wading that must persist.