‘We will continue on this path of good trouble’: Arab Americans mourn John Lewis

The Yemeni American News.

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

These famous words by civil rights icon John Lewis are more recent than you might think. Lewis made this statement in 2018, having gotten in an enormous amount of “good trouble” to improve this nation and get us closer to the ideals of freedom and equality.

It is a lesson to all of his admirers and all the freedom seekers across the world that the fight for justice must not end until all injustices are eradicated.

Lewis died on July 17, but his memory will be a lesson for generations to come. For Arab and Muslim Americans fighting for their civil rights and pushing against irrational hate, surveillance, institutional racism and unfair US foreign policy against their homelands, Lewis must be a role model in his unrelenting struggle.

Born in 1940 in Alabama in the Jim Crow South, Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, leading activities across the country to bring awareness to the evils of segregation. He had a major objective, getting young African American people involved in activism and politics. Lewis knew the power of people within the community – that rights are earned, not handed freely. This is the lesson that applies to our community. We need more engagement, involvement and organizing to outmuscle hate in public and private institutions as well as in the ballot box.

In 1965, Lewis led over hundreds of protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in what became known as “Bloody Sunday” as police beat activists and fired teargas into the crowd. Lewis himself was lucky to escape alive; his skull was fractured during the crackdown. But Lewis did not give up, he continued the fight. And even after legalized segregation ended, he knew that ending discrimination in the letter of the law, does not mean achieving racial equality.

Lewis was later elected to Congress in Georgia in 1986, where he became the moral compass for the House of Representatives until the end of his life on July 17, 2020.


Arab Americans mourn Lewis

Last week, Arab and Muslim advocacy groups across the country expressed condolences for Lewis and saluted his legacy. Lewis’s death coincided with the passing of another civil rights leader, Reverend C.T. Vivian. ACCESS eulogized both icons, calling them an inspiration for future generations.

“We are mourning the loss of Rep. John Lewis and Rev C.T. Vivian, two fearless icons of the civil rights movement who spent their lives fighting for racial equity,” ACCESS said on Facebook. “Their leadership and dedication to advancing the rights of marginalized communities has taken us one step closer to a world without injustice. Their legacies will inspire generations to stand up for freedom and courageously act on our values in the face of great challenges.”

The Arab American Institute praised the late congressman’s persistence in his fight for justice.

“We mourn the loss of civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis. From a young student to a Member of Congress, he never stopped fighting for justice. He inspired generations,” AAI said.

The Council on American Islamic Relations also lauded the civil rights legend.

“Like everyone in our nation, American Muslims owe a great debt of gratitude to Congressman John Lewis,” CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said in a statement. “Whether he was sitting at segregated lunch counters, boarding freedom rides or marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis repeatedly put his life on the line so that generations to come could live freely. May God comfort his family, preserve the progress he achieved and guide us to carry on his legacy.”

Muslim-American Congress members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar both paid tribute to Lewis.

“We learned from civil rights giant Congressman John Lewis that we have ‘a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble,’ said Tlaib. “In honor of his legacy, we will continue on this path of good trouble.”

For her part, Omar said serving alongside Lewis was a great honor.

“John Lewis was a giant. A civil rights legend. A leader in the halls of Congress. And a moral voice for the whole nation,” she said. “Having the opportunity to serve with him was one of the great honors of my life.”


The right to boycott

The passing of the civil rights icon comes as the fundamental freedoms we often take for granted are under a severe threat. From the pandemic of racism and police brutality threatening the lives of our Black brothers and sisters to federal officers cracking down on protesters in Portland, we are witnessing a spike in authoritarian impulses by the government.

Another major threat to our basic freedoms is the existing laws that restrict Americans’ freedom to boycott Israel in an effort to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Close to 30 states, including our very own Michigan, have laws that punish boycotts of Israel to varying degrees. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called such laws a “threat to Americans’ First Amendment” rights.

Although he was not a BDS supporter, Congressman Lewis knew the dangers of such legislation. That’s why he co-sponsored Congresswoman Omar’s bill H.Res.496 , which affirms that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Boycotts have been a useful tool for human rights movements across the world. Global boycotts helped to topple apartheid in South Africa. Here in the United States, the Montgomery bus boycott was a turning point in the fight against segregation in southern states.

“My support of this resolution was a simple demonstration of my ongoing commitment to the ability of every American to exercise the fundamental First Amendment right to protest through nonviolent actions,” Lewis said last year, explaining his support for Omar’s bill. “As a young boy growing up in rural Alabama, the trajectory of my life changed when I heard the news of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on the radio.  My support of these ideals simply affirms the constitutionally protected right to protest, enshrined by the First Amendment.”