During a speech this weekend commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the historic Selma marches to secure voting rights for blacks, Congressman John Lewis said:
“We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do…Don’t give up on things of great meaning to you. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe.”
This wasn’t the typical political rhetoric but great wisdom from a man who at the age of 24 was beaten and bloodied nearly to the point of death on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday and signified a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
Bloody Sunday was also a seminal moment in Lewis’ life and for many people across generations, it’s the event they immediately connect to the Civil Rights icon. But that experience on the Bridge, in which he suffered a skull fracture, wasn’t the first time Lewis had been attacked by racists (regular citizens and police) or faced death. It was an all-too common experience for Lewis who, as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest of the Big Six Civil Rights Leaders. During his time in college, Lewis was an active member of the Freedom Riders who rode segregated buses throughout the South to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court Decision which ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
Those brutal, harrowing and fearful days of the Freedom Rides are chronicled in the marvelous graphic novel, March, Book 2 by John Lewis and Andrew Adyin with extraordinary illustrations by artist Nate Powell.
Over the last 20 years, comics have become more than just funny pages for kids to read. And graphic novels have gone beyond the exploits of super heroes to portray–with breathtaking words and art–the real life figures who have shaped our country and world for the better.
And March, Book 2 (as well as March, Book 1 whose opening scene depicts the first attempted march on the Bridge) are as fine as pieces of literature as any history book or biography. The level of detail that is captured from Lewis memories is such an incredible gift to readers.
While I have considered myself to have better-than-average knowledge bout the Civil Rights movement as a preacher, admirer of Dr. King and former Birmingham newspaper reporter, I was still astounded by the particular hardships that Lewis and other activists faced during the Freedom Rides and on a daily basis. And I also was profoundly amazed by the activists’ sense of humor that served as the kindling to keep the spark of hope alive. And I continue to be moved by Lewis’ (among others) valiant commitment to non-violent protests for equality and non-violent responses to the horrendous violence they endured for simply wanting to vote, use a bathroom or eat at a lunch counter.
John Lewis gives a beautiful interview on “The Art and Discipline of Nonviolence” for Krista Tippet’s On Being, which still be heard and downloaded here. However, to see the stories come alive on the pages of March is mesmerizing. It is impossible not to be drawn into the story and witness the strength and courage that Lewis, Nash, Shuttlesworth, Williams, King, etc., exhibited during a tumultuous time in this nation’s history. And it is also difficult to not be reminded of how some of the same scenes in the story are being re-enacted today, whether in Ferguson or Ohio, New York or Oklahoma.
Come to think of it, probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for some University of Oklahoma frat boys to get their hands on some copies of March and immerse themselves in the stories of brave black men and women, children, teens and adults who non-violently crusaded for freedom.
Actually, it would do good for all of us to read (and re-read) the stories of the Civil Rights movement so we can continually learn how to practice the ways of non-violence to combat the racism and hatred that is occurring in black communities today.
As Lewis eloquently tweeted: “Our march continues. There is great work still to be done. Dedicate yourself to nonviolent social change, and we shall overcome.”