Georgia Congressman John Lewis made headlines recently by announcing he would not attend the inauguration of Donald Trump, just as a matter of principle.
Agree with him on this one or not, PBS’s new documentary John Lewis – Get In the Way makes it clear that Lewis has earned the right to talk about principles.
Get In the Way, which premieres Friday at 10:30 p.m. (check local listings), follows Lewis through much of the modern Civil Rights movement, which he joined in the late 1950s after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talk about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
He was beaten on freedom rides and during the 1965 Selma March (left). He has been jailed 45 times, on an array of charges that distill to essentially the same thing: He refused to back down on principles.
He thought blacks had the right to sit anywhere they wanted on a public bus. He thought blacks had the right to eat at public lunch counters. He thought blacks should have the right to vote.
It’s worth remembering, this documentary suggests, that all these things were forbidden by law or custom during Lewis’s lifetime.
Now all of them are nominally standard practice, as they should be, though it’s arguable that a number of states want to tighten voter registration in ways that disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.
That’s the kind of battle John Lewis says he’s still fighting, now from his seat in the U.S. Congress. While that might seem to imply he’s now the establishment that he once opposed, he doesn’t see it that way.
While much has been accomplished, says Lewis, there remains much to do, and he exhorts both his congressional colleagues and everyone outside the system to push for that kind of progress.
We see him giving a graduation speech at the University of New Hampshire, to a class that was born three decades after he took his first freedom ride, and he’s telling them the same thing he says he learned from Dr. King.
“When I was growing up,” he recalls, older people would tell him that segregation was just the way things were. “They’d say, ‘Don’t get in the way.’ “
He decided that’s exactly what he would do, and he’s more convinced today than ever that activism is the engine of social change.
Get In the Way notes that Lewis has hardly been on the winning side of every battle. It recounts his bruising primary battle with his old movement colleague Julian Bond, from which neither emerged untarnished. It was completed before the recent Trump boycott, but there’s no question that Lewis still keeps score.
The documentary touches relatively little on Lewis’s life outside his public work. One of his staffers says he’s “a little looser” back in his hometown in Georgia than he is in Washington, but we see little that modifies the image of someone who looks like he feels the battle is always on.
There’s a reason for that, of course.
One enduring impression from Get In the Way is that at 76, Lewis has come to see himself as a soldier in a much longer fight than he will be around to wage.
He picked up a torch, and he wants to pass that torch, and perhaps when all the relays have been run, there will be a finish line.