“Good Trouble”: John Lewis’s Life Reverberates on Film

On the occasion of Rep. Lewis’ death, this post and this film feels more crucial than ever. As we grieve his loss, we rededicate ourselves to making “good trouble” for a better future. (Eds.)

Good Trouble,” the new CNN documentary about legendary civil rights figure John Lewis brings history to the foreground and highlights the dangers to civil and political rights today. A panel discussion/webinar will be held on  Sunday, July 12 about the lessons that progressive activists can apply now from Lewis’s life. The webinar – starting at 4 pm Pacific time, 7 pm Eastern time, and all times in-between – features a 90-minute discussion and Q&A with activists, organizers, and artists. ( The event is free but registration is required.  Register for the event here. ) 

Lewis’s life and activism span many history-making movements, including the battle for voting rights that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  That law is now under assault by Republicans, and President Donald Trump, seeking to suppress the vote in the upcoming election.

Recognizing the threat that Trump posed, Lewis told an NBC interviewer soon after the 2016 election, “I don’t see the president-elect as a legitimate president.” The next day, Trump tweeted that Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad.” 

Trump’s comments sparked controversy in part because the exchange occurred on Martin Luther King Day weekend. Trump might have been shocked by the uproar stirred by his tantrum, including demands by people across the ideological and partisan spectrum that he apologize to Lewis. 

Hours after Trump’s Twitter tirade, Amazon reported that Lewis’s autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, was temporarily out of stock.  Thanks to Trump, the book’s sales spiked by nearly 106,020 percent, moving the book from the 15,918th spot to second on Amazon’s bestsellers list. It is possible, even likely, that Trump had no idea he was attacking one of the most admired figures in U.S. history. Trump surely had little knowledge of the movement Lewis helped lead. Perhaps Trump’s only encounter with civil rights activists came when they sued him and his father for discriminating against African American would-be tenants in their New York City apartment buildings during the 1970s.

Lewis was born into a large family of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. At 17, after becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school, he attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, which allowed students to work in lieu of tuition. He worked as a janitor and simultaneously attended the historically black Fisk University, graduating with degrees from the seminary and the university.

In 1958, Lewis attended a weekend retreat at Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, where veteran activists helped him visualize what could happen if thousands of poor working people–folks like Lewis’s parents–were galvanized into direct action. “I left Highlander on fire,” Lewis recalled.

He became involved in the sit-in movement in Nashville, the Freedom Rides, and the crusade for voting rights.  He came close to death several times as a result of physical violence by racists and vigilantes. As the first chairperson of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he spoke at the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

He led the federal VISTA program under President Jimmy Carter, led a nationwide voter registration project, and has continued his work as an organizer and activist even after being elected to Congress from Atlanta.  He received the National Book Award for March, his book about the march from Selma to Montgomery.  

Lewis has been arrested at least 45 times, including during his years in Congress participating in nonviolent civil disobedience for immigrant rights, against the Iraq war, and against the genocide in Darfur.  In 2016, Lewis led fellow House Democrats in a sit-in in the House chamber demanding that the Republican Speaker take action on gun control in the wake of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“When you see something that is not right … say something! Do something!” he often says in his speeches.  He counsels his audiences on the constant need for “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The 90-minute film is now available to watch on-line through July 11.  The cost per household of $12 gives viewers access to the documentary.  You can watch the film here.    See below for more on the July 12 webinar, which is cosponsored by the Social Justice Committee of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and Magnolia Films.

A thought-provoking panel discussion/webinar will be held on  Sunday, July 12 about the lessons that progressive activists can apply now from Lewis’s remarkable life. The webinar – starting at 4 pm Pacific time, 7 pm Eastern time, and all times in-between – features some of America’s most thoughtful activists, organizers, and artists.  They will participate in a 90-minute discussion and Q&A about the film and its lessons.  The panel includes: 

  • Dawn Porter, the film’s award-winning director  

  • Laura Michalchyshyn, the film’s award-winning producer

  • Heather Booth, a legendary organizer who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, served as training director  for the Democratic National Committee, was director of the NAACP’s voter registration and turnout project, and was the lead organizer for the successful campaign to get bank reform legislation passed in Congress.

  • Jessica Pierce, who has worked as the NAACP’s national training director, as organizing director of the United States Student Association, as national chair of Black Youth Project 100, and as a leader of Generation Vote, a national campaign to build a voting bloc of young people

  • Peter Dreier, a DSA founding member, will moderate the panel. He is a long-time activist, Professor of Politics at Occidental College, author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,  co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and contributor to The Nation, American Prospect, Teen Vogue, Dissent, and other publications.

    The event is free but registration is required.  Register for the event here.