Activists who practiced civil disobedience in the 1960s knew their opponents wouldn’t show them civility in return. Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966 for protesting racist laws and practices in the Jim Crow South. During the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights on March 7, 1965, state troopers and “deputized” white men beat him so badly they fractured his skull.
Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020 at age 80, often spoke of what he called “good trouble.” Getting arrested for trying to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—which bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader—was an example of this. Speaking atop the same bridge 55 years after the events of that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” he urged listeners to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
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The Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins
Lewis’ first arrest was during a lunch counter sit-in in 1960. On February 1 of that year, four Black college students had sat at a “whites-only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. As expected, the staff refused to serve them; but the students refused to leave. They remained in their seats and stayed until closing. The next day, they came back with more students to do it again.
The Greensboro sit-ins sparked a wave of similar protests in which students protested lunch counters’ racist policies by publicly violating them. Lewis, Diane Nash and other members of the Nashville Student Movement began organizing sit-ins in their city. On February 27, Lewis sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Nashville where angry white patrons beat him and his fellow protestors and tried to pull them off their seats. When the police arrived, it was the protestors, not the attackers, whom they arrested. This was 20-year-old Lewis’ first arrest.
“I didn't necessarily want to go to jail,” he recalled in a 1973 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. “But we knew…it would help solidify the student community and the Black community as a whole. The student community did rally. The people heard that we had been arrested and before the end of the day, five hundred students made it into the downtown area to occupy other stores and restaurants. At the end of the day ninety-eight of us were in jail.”
The pressure worked: That spring, lunch counters in Nashville began serving Black customers.
The Freedom Riders
The next year, student activists traveled through the south on public buses to protest the federal government’s refusal to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who started off on May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. Many more joined the trip or started their own Freedom Rides that summer. One of those who joined was Lewis’ fellow Nashville activist Reverend C.T. Vivian, who died at age 95 on July 17, 2020, the same day as Lewis.
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The first violent attack on the Freedom Riders came only five days into their journey, when Lewis attempted to enter the “white” waiting room in the Greyhound terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. A group of angry white men beat up Lewis and two other Freedom Riders. On May 14, a white mob in Anniston, Alabama set fire to a bus carrying nine Freedom Riders and then beat up the passengers.
White mobs continued to attack Freedom Riders in Birmingham, where the city’s police commissioner arrested Lewis and his fellow riders. Afterward, the commissioner drove them to a remote area near the Tennessee border known for Klan terrrorism and left them there. In Jackson, Mississippi, police officers arrested Lewis, Vivian and other Freedom Riders, sending them to Parchman Farm. At the infamously brutal state penitentiary, guards beat them and forced them to work on the penitentiary’s massive farm without pay.
Once again, the arrests drew national attention—as activists hoped they would—putting pressure on officials to act. That fall, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally enforced Boynton v. Virginia by demanding that interstate bus services integrate their bus seating and terminals.
The Legacy of ‘Good Trouble’
After the Freedom Rides, Lewis continued to play a key role in the civil rights movement. In June 1963 he became the chairman of SNCC. The next month, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” he told the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”
For the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis “live-tweeted” the day as he’d experienced it. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went out from under me,” he wrote. “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.” TV stations broadcast the violent footage around the country in 1965, pressuring the government to act by passing the Voting Rights Act later that year.
In 1987, Lewis became a U.S. Congressman, representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He held the position until his death in 2020. Yet even as a Congressman, he continued to get into what he called “good trouble.” His last arrest was on October 8, 2013. Posting a picture of it online, he tweeted: “Arrest number 45, protesting in support of comprehensive immigration reform.”