Reading John Lewis

Jul. 07, 2014 @ 07:51 AM

Durham Reads’ selection of John Lewis’ graphic novel, “March: Book One” seems especially appropriate for this time and place.

Lewis, who has represented Georgia’s 5th District in Congress since 1987, was a giant of the Civil Rights Movement.  The announcement his book would be the community’s group-reading project this summer coincided with the 50th anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Lewis was the youngest of that pantheon of civil rights leaders – including Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Roy Wilkins and Durham’s Floyd McKissick – who helped prod the nation into that historic end of legal segregation.

Here’s what fellow Congressman David Price -- also first elected to the House in 1986 -- had to say about Lewis at N. C. Central University’s Martin Luther King Day observance in January 2011:

“No one alive today can speak more authoritatively about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King than John Lewis. For him it is not only a matter of historical proximity and knowledge, but also shared vision, inspiration, and leadership of the movement. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John was an architect of and keynote speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. And then in 1965 he led over 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were attacked and beaten by state troopers. This ‘Bloody Sunday’ shocked the conscience of the nation and led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act.”

Price was filling in for Lewis as speaker that day -- unusually bitter winter weather had prevented Lewis from flying here from Atlanta. A few months later, Lewis finally did speak at N. C. Central, at the university’s commencement.

Lewis recalled the struggle to end the legal barriers that denied virtually all blacks in the South the right to vote.

“We changed that,” Lewis said, according to an NCCU report on the address. “We marched. We were beaten on the bridge in Selma. We didn’t give up. We put our bodies on the line.”

He went on to tell the graduates, “It’s your time to lead. It’s your turn to get in the way.”

Lewis is among a dwindling number of movement leaders still alive and active, so his recollections are increasingly important.

It is to state the obvious that the changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement and the landmark civil rights legislation passed a half-century ago opened the door to a far better America. It’s chilling to think of the contributions in business, politics, arts, entertainment, education and civic life we would have been denied had we not finally ended centuries of enslavement and debasement of so many fellow citizens.

National Public Radio reviewer Jody Arlington called “March: Book One” “a fresh and sometimes shocking work, even for those familiar with Lewis’ life.”

It is fitting we’ll spend the summer 50 years removed from 1964’s Freedom Summer learning from that perspective.