Bolder Advocacy

John Lewis and the ‘Headlights’ in Today’s Social Justice Struggles


Asean Johnson testifying.

No sooner had I heard civil rights hero John Lewis yesterday call on younger generations to step up and be “headlights” in the movement for social justice than I came across two inspiring examples of young people doing just that.

Student criticizes school board

The most striking was the powerful speech a nine-year-old boy gave at a Chicago Board of Education hearing on Wednesday. His head barely reaching the podium, Asean Johnson’s remarks assailing teacher layoffs were described by Huffington Post as “blistering”:

With tears sliding down his cheeks Johnson told the school board, “You are slashing our education. You’re pulling me down. You’re taking our educational opportunities away.”

Undocumented immigrants call out lawmaker’s racism

At the same time that Congressman Lewis was sharing with us his personal account of the civil rights struggle – a story that every American should hear — a group of undocumented activists on Capitol Hill were exhibiting the very bravery and creativity Lewis argues is the antidote to injustice.

DREAMers at King's office.

DREAMers at King’s office.

Several DREAMers – undocumented immigrant youth –visited Rep. Steve King’s office yesterday afternoon to protest the congressman’s recent racist statements. King has refused to apologize for his comment that undocumented immigrant youth have “calves the size of cantaloupes” from “hauling marijuana.”

In response, these activists from the nonprofit United We Dream brought cantaloupes to King’s office. Many more have joined the outcry on Twitter, using the hashtag #nocantaloupecalveshere.

The boldness and ingenuity in these protests would no doubt please Congressman Lewis. After all, when asked yesterday how to engage youth in the 21st Century, he emphasized creative approaches, describing how, as a young college student, he was inspired by a comic book that dramatized the boycott in Montgomery led by Dr. King. [Lewis has just published his own graphic novel: March]

>>Rep. Lewis begins at 33:00Civil Rights in the Balance: John Lewis’ Call to Action from Alliance for Justice on

The story of the 20th century’s civil rights movement shows how the actions of dynamic individuals—the “headlights” Lewis refers to—combined with the support of strong organizations—nonprofits and unions in this case—and brave political leadership—Kennedy, LBJ—achieve transformative results.

Who will be this generation’s John Lewis? As the DREAMers and Asean Johnsons of the world suggest, we clearly have no shortage of candidates.