Documentary Honors Civil Rights Leader Rep. John Lewis
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Weeks before Congressman John Lewis died, a documentary came out exploring his life. It's called "John Lewis: Good Trouble," and in it, we see the young civil rights leader back in 1965. Protesters looking for the right to vote tried to march out of Selma, Ala., and stood peacefully as state troopers beat them with clubs. Lewis lived to the age of 80 and was still stirring up crowds in the last days of his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")
JOHN LEWIS: My philosophy is very simple - when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something, do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.
MARTIN: Congressman Lewis spent some of his final months working on the documentary produced by Erika Alexander, who spoke with Steve Inskeep.
ERIKA ALEXANDER: We started very earnestly at the top of 2019, and he was fine, and he looked very robust. And then he started to get thinner and, in fact, Dawn Porter, who is our director, said she noticed inside the filming that he started to lose weight. And then they were concerned a little later in the fall. And then apparently, he'd gone for tests, and they told us he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What was it like to sit down for a period of time with a man like that at the end of his life who has an opportunity to review his life?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. It's - I just find it incredibly sad to even think that he's - excuse me - that he's gone.
INSKEEP: It's OK.
ALEXANDER: But I think he understood that he wouldn't be here that long. And I think that's why he allowed us to come not only to watch him do his work in Congress but to come to his home, to be allowed to come to his home, to go to Alabama with him and meet his sisters and brothers. And I think he knew that because he is the boy from Troy who had lived so very long past his contemporaries, whether it was Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy, that he at 80 would be seeing the end of his days.
INSKEEP: You have archival footage of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, of the march in Selma, Ala., in the 1960s. And there's a young man there who is recognizable as John Lewis, but, well, he's very young. He's got hair. He's a handsome guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")
LEWIS: We're marching today to dramatize to the nation and dramatize to the world the hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens of Alabama but particularly here in the black belt (ph) area denied the right to vote.
INSKEEP: What was his role at that time?
ALEXANDER: He said he had already decided that he knew he would be in this for his life's work. So asking him about that day. He said he wasn't afraid. He wasn't afraid of death. He wasn't afraid of them. He was afraid of anything, that he had committed himself to a nonviolent way of life, the philosophy of that, and to also to bringing his body to bear as collateral to free us all. I mean, that's amazing - amazing that this beautiful, young black man who had everything to live for was sitting on that bridge or standing just across that bridge willing to die for us - amazing. It's very biblical.
INSKEEP: I want to note what John Lewis did in the years afterward, which not all activists chose. Jesse Jackson, for example, has essentially remained an activist all his life. He did run for president, but he essentially has been out of office and outside the system and pushing the system from there. John Lewis decided to run for office and work from the inside. Why was that?
ALEXANDER: Well, because I think he understood that legislation and actual doing of the work, the administration of the work, was a way to be an activist as well. I think he rightly understood that he had done a lot of the work in protesting, and he had proved his mettle out there. But in order to put himself again go in the belly of the beast and say, now I will steer it from the inside and be able to be there to make the sausage was a very forward thinking. I mean, he's a progressive. But, I mean, I think he just wanted to be a part of it in the best way he knew he could be. And to be a representative of something that he had worked so hard to do didn't seem like he was giving away anything. In fact, he was fighting a different way to be an activist and again to agitate but from the inside.
INSKEEP: How did he see his role in the Trump era?
ALEXANDER: Well, you know, Steve, you know, this is - I know he's an OG cool dude because he died in active protest - gosh, woo. I'm getting teared up more than I want to because I respect him so. The man died in active protest. He had never attended the inauguration of Donald Trump. He had never attended a State of the Union. He said he was an illegitimate president, and he would not validate it or lend it credibility. So that's how he felt about that administration. He would not acknowledge it, and he would not even deign to show up in that man's presence. That's some real OG stuff.
INSKEEP: Is there any particular memory of him, a specific memory you want to leave us with?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. I - but I just wish that people could feel the warmth of this man's smile, that he had endured all those things and he still was a happy warrior. And I think about that when I'm so furious and angry sometimes, the things that he experienced but still managed to come out of it and decide - he decided to smile. His favorite song was "Happy," and he was happy. He was happy to be of service. He is his own best advertisement for why democracy matters. But he also showed us that we should have the power of optimism and hope to move us forward.
INSKEEP: Erika Alexander, thank you very much.
ALEXANDER: Thank you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE SMITH BAND'S "TRIBUTE TO PHARRELL WILLIAMS: HAPPY (INSTRUMENTAL)")
MARTIN: Alexander's documentary, "John Lewis: Good Trouble," features Congressman John Lewis, who died on Friday.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE SMITH BAND'S "TRIBUTE TO PHARRELL WILLIAMS: HAPPY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.