“I’m not a lawyer, but I know a little something about the law,” said civil rights icon John Lewis as he accepted the Thurgood Marshall Award from the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice on Saturday, Aug. 10, at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
The first non-lawyer to receive the award, which honors those who contribute to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights, the U.S. representative from Georgia’s 5th congressional district said he had been arrested 40 times during the 1960s, plus another five times as a member of Congress.
Born in 1940, Lewis recalled asking his parents why there were signs designating white men and colored men and white women and colored women. They admonished him that that was the way it was and “don’t get in the way; don’t get in trouble.” But at age 15 in 1955, inspired by the acts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was moved to get in “what I call good trouble, necessary trouble – and I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
As a college student, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations and participated in Freedom Rides to challenge the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South. A devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence, he endured physical attacks and serious injuries for the advancement of the civil rights movement.
Many lawyers “came to our rescue,” Lewis said, including Thurgood Marshall. “They defended us and got us out of jail on many occasions.”
“I want to thank each and every one of you, as members of the bar, for standing up, for speaking up, for speaking out, for helping to redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said via video. “We need the law to be on the side of the people. We need members of the bar more than ever before to find a way to get in the way, to get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”