Lost, and Found: Two Giants in Two Months, and A Charge to Us All

Today America lays to rest a giant for justice. The timing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing could not have been sadder or more cruel, given her bracing fight against ravaging cancers so that she might continue the larger battle for “equal justice under law” as long as she could. The sinister Republican power grab triggered within a near nanosecond of her death was a predictable abomination, but it was dwarfed, for at least a shining moment, by the outpouring of love and support from thousands of Americans whose own lives had been touched and tangibly improved by her brilliantly argued work that has so enriched the fabric of our nation.

In her fierce 2013 dissent to Shelby County v. Holder, the Court’s dishonestly argued license to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Justice Ginsburg referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting in turn 19th-century pastor Theodore Parker, when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But the Notorious RBG couldn’t leave it there; it only bends that way, she continued, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

A scant two months before Justice Ginsburg died, we lost another colossus: Congressman John Lewis, whose “commitment to see the task through” compelled him, in his dying days, to go stand on Washington, DC’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, to celebrate those whom he believed could bring “to completion” the long journey he shepherded for more than a half-century, from country road to Capitol Hill, to realize America’s promise.

Rep. Lewis wove it all together in his final charge, published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral, where he honored civil rights martyrs from Emmett Till to the Mother Emanual Church worshippers, to the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks — a list so horrifyingly long, it shows how much work we must do, so that everyone respects the most basic right to life of us all.

The American president and his henchmen’s constant denigration of this summer’s fervent protests for racial justice, of the entire Black Lives Matter movement — indeed, of the very notion that Black lives matter, as evidenced by the failure to lift a finger to protect or even to grieve for the Black and brown people disproportionately harmed by the still-rampaging pandemic — is a slap in the face to Lewis, Ginsburg, and all who have devoted their lives to equity.

Now it falls to us, as John Lewis made clear, to bend that long arc a little faster and further toward the elusive justice they both so fervently sought, for so long.

We need to reflect, as Lewis and Ginsburg surely would, to make sure that our strategy is sound, our planned next steps are the right ones, and we’ve mobilized our most powerful arguments and partners. But most of all, we need to take heart — to take up their purpose and brilliance and savviness and spirit and just plain grit, to keep at it, season after season, and to love what we do — because we are, and we know we are, pressing hard and leaning in and bending that stubborn arc in the right direction.

“Democracy is not a state,” John Lewis cautioned, in his final words to us. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Democracy, then, is our assignment now. Our rights and freedoms are imperiled. Confronted by injustice after injustice, we must make what John Lewis would consider “good trouble,” and cry out our own fierce dissents that, as Justice Ginsburg once put it, “speak to a future age…, not for today, but for tomorrow.”

Guided by our principles, we are called to convert our mourning to imagination, to strategy, and then to action, because there is work to be done. Systemic racism and misogyny continue to poison America, severely crippling the potential of the nation and its citizens. We must rise to the moment, to perform feats of moral and spiritual alchemy worthy of these two colossi, to harness our energies and transform America into the Beloved Community they envisioned and for which they fought so valiantly.

“You only pass this way once,” John Lewis taught us. “And you have to give it all you have.”

As Americans bid our final farewell to Justice Ginsburg in this moment of “fierce urgency,” in Dr. King’s words, the torch has been passed; it is in our hands.

Founder & Executive Director of WomenStrong International. Director of Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University.