A quote by the late Congressman John Lewis resurfaces, and not a moment too soon…

Rep. John Lewis (center, left), the late congressman and civil rights activist, with Rep. Barbara Lee (center, right) in Selma, Alabama.

Civil Rights hero cites CIW in introduction to his final book on his life in the fight for social justice…

Congressman John Lewis: “Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

To quote, or perhaps to paraphrase, Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try (our) souls.”

Paine was of course talking about a particularly dark and difficult moment in the history of the American Revolution, but he might as well have been talking about America today, 244 years later.  

This week alone, the country watched in horror as Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times at close range by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  The shooting, which took place within feet of Blake’s three young sons and left him paralyzed from the waist down, was caught on film like so many more police shootings before.  Then, with tensions flaring in the streets of Kenosha between those protesting Blake’s shooting and armed counter-protesters, two more innocents were gunned down, unarmed protesters killed by a 17-year-old boy, a self-styled “militia member” armed with a rifle he was too young to carry openly in Wisconsin.  Their deaths, too, were filmed by citizen journalists and watched on TVs, phones, and computer screens across the country.  

Meanwhile, relegated to the background by events in Wisconsin, the death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic reached 180,000 this week, killing Americans at the rate of roughly one every minute, 1000 every day.  Despite the rising toll, the Center for Disease Control, bending to pressure from the White House, rescinded its previous policy that all people who have been exposed to the virus, symptomatic and asymptomatic alike, should be tested to help locate the virus and stop its spread.   While sure to result in lower positive test numbers and the temporary semblance of progress, the CDC’s new testing guidelines threaten to effectively blind health officials and contact tracers to up to half of the people carrying, and spreading, the virus and cripple their already struggling efforts to contain it.  Commenting on the inexplicable about face, Alison Galvani, director for the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis at Yale School of Medicine, said simply, “This change in policy will kill.”  And in Louisiana, a powerful hurricane — its power amplified by the climate change-warmed waters of the Gulf — threatened coastal communities with 150-mile per hour winds and a storm surge of up to 20 feet.  Even in a year of unprecedented tragedy and upheaval, this week seemed to reach new lows.

But all was not darkness this week.  Indeed, a small but bright light was shined into the encroaching night when the words of another great American revolutionary, the Civil Rights hero Congressman John Lewis, were brought to our attention in Immokalee by a longtime Fair Food ally from Charlottesville, Virginia.  She had come across a passage in the introduction to Congressman Lewis’ 2017 book titled “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America,” a book that he described as “lessons on freedom and meditations on change for the generations that will take us into the future.”  The passage served as a timely reminder that the work of building an “even more fair, more just society” is never finished.  But not only that, Rep. Lewis cited the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to make his point!  It was the first time anyone in Immokalee had seen the mention, and the discovery was so inspiring that we thought we’d share it — and, hopefully, the impact that it had on us here in Immokalee — with you:

… Freedom is not a state; it is an act.  It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest.  Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.  The work of love, peace, and justice will always be necessary, until their realism and their imperative take hold of our imagination, crowd out any dream of hatred or revenge, and fill up our existence with their power.

It is my hope that the leaders of today will heed the warning the people have so patiently tendered and shake off the shackles of inertia.  Let us remove the false burdens of partisanship, personal ambition, and greed, and begin to do with the work we were all appointed to do to move this country forward.  Let us appeal to our similarities, t0 the higher standards of integrity, decency, and the common good, rather than to our differences, be they age, gender, sexual preference, class, or color.  If not, the people will put aside the business of their lives and turn their attention to the change they are determined to see, just as the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and others so adamantly demonstrate…  We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affects us all. (Read more here)

Indeed, it was not the first time Congressman Lewis had spoken about the CIW.  The discovery of the passage set us off in search of a forgotten quote from the early days of the Campaign for Fair Food, his statement on the significance of the Taco Bell Boycott victory, resurrected here:

“This is a great victory for the champions of social justice and equality in America and around the world. The courageous men and women of the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers prove that standing strong in the struggle can remove the greatest obstacles, even the resistance of a goliath in corporate industry. This victory once again confirms that the methods of nonviolence can win deep and lasting change in the most powerful institutions of the world, in American government and in corporate conglomerates. I applaud all the Coalition workers who struggled and suffered for years to win greater equality for American workers.”

Few stars in the firmament of modern American history shine brighter than Congressman John Lewis.  His life’s work, his fierce determination in the face of violence and hatred, his unwavering commitment to building a more perfect union based on this country’s founding principles, is unequaled in our times.  We are fortunate to have shared even a few moments of the struggle for “a more fair, more just society” with Congressman Lewis. 

To come across this passage, at this time, is not only humbling, but fortifying, a life preserver appearing miraculously from above to find us in the roiling sea and give us hope.  And that hope gives us strength to continue the fight.

Because a more complete quotation of Paine’s famous passage reminds us, as he sought to remind his contemporaries then, that nothing worth fighting for is ever easy:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.