Editor’s note: This was first published in the MDJ in September 2016.
You tell me. Is forewarned, forearmed? If we delve into the political history of this country, does it make us better citizens, more discerning when weighing campaign promises?
Now that we have the vote, do we see it as an obligation and a right, or are we weighing sitting this one out, weary of harsh rhetoric and scare tactics?
I don’t know about you, but I needed a reminder of how far we have come on this journey toward “one nation, indivisible.” So I looked close to home, leaving the bookstore with copies of Rep. John Lewis’ life from segregation to “one man, one vote.”
His trilogy on the civil rights movement, titled “March” — Books One, Two and Three, is not your everyday diary, but brought to print as three graphic novels. The idea came from an old comic book venue, a story of Martin Luther King Jr., and his time in Montgomery.
Perhaps Rep. Lewis, who has seen the inside of more jails than we can name, knew words as descriptions of the struggle to end discrimination would not be enough, so there are black and white drawings of state troopers with night sticks, of foot soldiers, returning to lunch counters day after day, enduring the insult of not being served.
With “passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation,” the movement began. John Lewis, a college student, and other young African-Americans, practiced calling each other names and spitting on one another to steel themselves for the disrespect coming their way.
They began in Nashville, feeling the first cost of integration after a law professor at Vanderbilt University was fired for supporting the sit-ins. White faculty members at the school threatened to resign over his dismissal, and the die was cast.
John Lewis was a freshman in high school when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating schools. By 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rep. Lewis, listening to a young black preacher’s sermons, heard Martin Luther King Jr., speak of “social justice.” John Lewis had imagined himself as the man bringing the sermon, but he spent his 21st birthday in jail after a protest march.
By May of 1961, he had become a Freedom Rider, barely escaping injury on a bus, set on fire. Footage of that burning bus “stirred” the national consciousness of the country.
In Mississippi, only 5 percent of eligible black voters were registered. Homes of activists who tried to increase that number were riddled with bullets.
As for law and order? Three-hundred federal officers were wounded when James Meredith, a black man, sought to enter the University of Mississippi.
Three civil rights workers were killed and there were a thousand arrests as the push for voting rights in Mississippi gained strength. Thirty-five churches were bombed.
Fannie Lou Farmer, a black sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, was asked to leave her home of 18 years after she registered to vote.
The day Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, John Lewis was jailed for leading a group in Selma, Alabama, to request voting rights. The country watched in horror as police dogs and fire hoses were used against black children in Birmingham. Four young African-American girls were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed.
In Selma, Alabama, a march to Montgomery for voting rights began. Still known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers, attacking marchers, rained blows on John Lewis’ head, sending him to the hospital.
In August of 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
This is our history. This is the story of “one man, one vote.” We weep once we’ve read of lives, degraded and lost. The “arc of history (has finally) bent toward justice,” but we cannot sit out this election, any election. The children are watching, and they will mirror the citizenship they see practiced.
Rep. John Lewis’ “March” includes drawings of the first inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president hands a card to the congressman from Georgia. On it, he has written: “Because of you, John.”
It was a moment, earned, and 49 years after John Lewis’ first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter.