For this week’s Native Nerd column, I want to tell you the time Congressman John Lewis told me as a Native American journalist, to get into #GoodTrouble.
John Lewis died last week at 80-years-old from a battle with pancreatic cancer. When I first saw his name trending on social media, I waited to respond, hopeful that maybe this was once more social media jumping to a conclusion, and that the reports were false.
The next morning, I saw it was indeed true and my heart was heavy.
I remembered a time in my journalism career I actually got to ask this man, an icon of civil rights, a brief question, that changed my life.
It was 2017 at the Library of Congress at the Herblock Awards event. It is an annual prize for news cartoonists, and Marty Two Bulls had received an honor for his work with Indian Country Today. It was Indian Country Media Network at that time, but we have since changed to what we are now.
Marty was a great interview, full of great thoughts and insights. I grabbed photos and told him I looked forward to seeing him at the Library of Congress awards event that night.
I remember learning that Congressman Lewis would be the honored speaker and felt excited to meet or even ask a question from him if I could get an opportunity to do so.
The day was a whirlwind for me, as I rushed off to interview then-Senator Heidi Heitkamp regarding her work on the #NotInvisible efforts and Savanna’s Act.
I had a little more time so I visited the modern art museum in DC and discovered a giant blue rooster.
I wrote as much of my stories as I could while I waited for the evening’s events.
That night, the auditorium was completely filled with people and I had a seat in the very back of the auditorium. Luckily I had a zoom lens to grab photographs. The Herblock Prize winner Ruben Bolling gave a great and funny speech.
Congressman John Lewis also spoke. He was a commanding man. He was filled with power and fire. I could tell he had been through a lifetime of struggle, the man who was spit on and called the worst of racist names — not just as a young man standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr. — but also on the day he had been elected to office.
There I was, a journalist of color listening to one of the most profoundly iconic civil rights fighters of his time.
I was riveted.
I thought of my own self, growing up in California, in a small house on Compton Blvd. going to school where people asked “what are you?” on a daily basis. I was bullied, made fun of, and there I was, a journalist in Washington, D.C., listening to a hero of color talk about his own experiences.
And then the woman at the podium asked if there were any questions from the audience. There were probably a few hundred people there so I didn’t know if I might have a chance at any other time. With two large cameras and a heavy camera bag around my neck, I leapt from my chair and literally ran as fast as I could to the microphone. Once I got to the microphone, I was out of breath.
An amazing discovery
When John Lewis died last week, my heart was aching. I thought of him and his life’s struggle. Then suddenly — I remembered that that moment with John Lewis, happened at the Library of Congress auditorium and that the Herblock award was given annually. I wondered if there was a video. I found it. I wasn’t sure if my question was part of the recorded program. But I was glad to see it was.
I saw it for the first time last week.
My question and John Lewis’ response
I arrived to the microphone out of breath. I could barely speak I had run so fast, but I didn’t want to miss out on such a powerful moment.
Completely unexpectedly, I became overcome with emotion. I was at that moment a little brown kid who had been called stupid, unable to learn, and other things my whole life, and I was now talking to another man of color, a champion actually, who had never pulled his punches in his life.
After a respectful acknowledgment to Ruben Bolling and Marty Two Bulls, I told the Congressman that I was a journalist of color, a Native American journalist, and I said “I cannot say what your words mean to me.” I could barely get out the words.
Tears were running down my face, I made every effort to compose myself.
John Lewis said it was okay. He told me to use my pen and my camera to tell the truth. He told me he had visited Indian Country. He told me to tell the story.
But most of all, when I asked if I should get into trouble (which you can almost hear me say) John Lewis told me the phrase he has used for years. It is the phrase familiar to so many who have fought for their rights to equal treatment, for fairness, for equality, for love.
During a moment in my life that I will never, ever forget for as long as I live, a prolific man and leader I most admire in this world ... told me his catchphrase.
He told me to “Get into good trouble.”
Yes, sir Congressman Lewis. I will.
#NativeNerd Vincent Schilling is the associate editor for Indian Country Today.