Black History Month – American Hero, John Lewis

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You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way… to get in the way.

– Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020

A few years ago, I bought the book, The Children by David Halberstam, but I only read it recently. As an aside, David Halberstam was the commencement speaker when I graduated from college, so I always took a second look at his books.

I looked at this one often in my kindle library, but was never quite ready to sit down for such a serious book. In the last four years, I’ve been engulfed with politics, including racial justice, but I wasn’t ready for a history lesson.

I finally started it last summer, soon after George Floyd’s murder, and with all of Halberstam’s work, it did not disappoint.

I had misinterpreted the title to mean the literal children of the civil rights movement, the young people growing up in that time and after. What I discovered is that Halberstam’s implication that the civil rights movement was left to “the children” – the young adults who risked everything, including their lives to march, to sit at lunch counters, to register to vote, to do many of the things we take for granted, even today.

One of the very surprising things that stood out to me was the level of participation of John Lewis. John Lewis was a hero of mine, but more in an abstract way listening to his modern, inspirational speeches rather than his history, and I wondered why I hadn’t learned his name as readily as I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. In school. I didn’t realize they were contemporaries, and met and worked together to build what they called the “beloved community.” As I thought about this missing piece in my childhood education, I realized that growing up in the seventies during busing, and my really formative years of middle and high school in the eighties, John Lewis wasn’t part of “history” as we think of it; for that matter, neither was MLK. Lewis’ beating on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was in 1965, one year before I was born, and King was assassinated in 1968 when I was a toddler. These events, and the bulk of the civil rights movement occurred a mere twenty years before I graduated high school; nineteen years to be more precise. In the time between Lewis and King’s assault and assassination, I hadn’t even reached adulthood. This book really brought that home to me. John Lewis would live in my kids’ history books, but for me, he was in my now.

I hadn’t even made it halfway through the book when John Lewis died, and I thought for several days of putting the book down and reading something else, but I didn’t. I finished the story, cringing and welling with tears, and sometimes gasping for air at the horror of it all and the idea that while we’ve come far, we have so much farther to go. When I finished The Children, I immediately read Jon Meacham‘s new book, His Truth is Marching On, and that bridged the short gap between Lewis’ civil rights activism and his congressional career all on that path to the beloved community.

Learn more about John Lewis and his role in the civil rights movement by reading John Lewis in hhis own words in his memoirs, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement and Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change as well as his graphic novel trilogy beginning with March: Book One.

One of the things that I found somewhat amazing, miraculous even, was the number of long-lasting activists all being in the same town at the same time. They didn’t travel to Nashville; they were already there from around the country attending school. John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, CT Vivian, James Lafayette, Kelly Miller Smith, Rev. James Lawson, who learned the non-violent method he taught them from his trip to India and learning from Gandhi, and of course as witness, David Halberstam, a local journalist with The Tenesseean in Nashville. Reverand Lawson described it as providential during his eulogy for John Lewis in 2020, and that just gave me chills.

If you do one thing, watch the Reverand James Lawson at the funeral of John Lewis in Atlanta, Georgia:

(c)2021
Wearing a Mask is Good Trouble, Necessary Trouble.
(c)2021

Election Connection: 15 Weeks: Civil Rights Icon, John R. Lewis (1940-2020)

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“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis, Twitter, 2018
John R. Lewis, House of Representatives. Public Domain. (c)2020
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I Remember…..

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I went to elementary school in Bayside. Queens, New York. I was there for kindergarten through fifth grade. That would have been 1971 – 1977. I remember my kindergarten teacher taking away my grandfather’s pocketknife when I was playing with it in class one day. She never gave it back. More than likely, it wasn’t a knife at all, but a shiny silver colored nail clipper in a black case. It was cool. My grandfather had died around then or just before, and she never did give it back.

I remember being in first grade with my cousin who was in second grade. It was a multi-age classroom that they were trying out.

I remember forgetting my glasses at home and my Dad, who was home resting after back surgery came to school to bring them to me. I hated my glasses. I think the school nurse gave me a guilt trip about making my Dad bring them.

I remember my principal, Mr. Picelli asking me if I had a twin because my picture was on his supervisor’s desk. She looked exactly like me. Exactly.

I remember the Bicentennial. It was kind of a big deal.

The $2 Bill returned to circulation for the Bicentennial. We almost never used them, but collected them. My husband still carries one on his wallet.

I only remember a handful of friends from those days in elementary school. We moved at the end of fifth grade out to the suburbs and another elementary school. Two of the boys in my class stand out; one for his outgoing, loud and friendly ways and the other for his quiet manner and the postcards he sent after he moved. It was either third grade or fourth grade.

As a kid I didn’t notice bussing when it happened. It is only in hindsight that I discerned the change from all white classrooms to mixed race. I don’t remember my parents ever talking about bussing or Black kids coming to school. I think the label African-American still hadn’t come into convention; not until people began to reclaim their pre-slavery heritage.

It was a new school year, and it felt…normal; no big deal. It must have been a huge deal for the kids pulled out of their neighborhood schools to come to ours.

The new kids blended in with the rest of us. I knew they took buses to school when I walked, and they didn’t live in my court. I knew our court, the playground behind our apartment, the big road where I wasn’t allowed, the post office where my parents worked, Joe’s Pizza, and the Chinese restaurant. There was also the drug store where we bought my parents cigarettes (Pall Mall) and my doctor’s office. That was my neighborhood: a handful of shops and about two dozen families.

Once when the bus passed us, I waved to Lonnie. In my memory, he looks sad, but it was probably more that he was quiet on the bus rather than his usual gregarious self in the classroom. In the class, I remember him hopping from one desk to the next, touching everyone with a pat, on the head, on the arm, laughing that he was giving us chicken pox. I laughed too and told him I’d had them already. He had a light complexion and a flat face. His hair was everywhere, not tall or high hair, but big. I don’t think I’d ever seen an afro that wild. I loved it. I remember that he bothered some of the kids in the class but he didn’t bother me. If he were in school today, I’d  think he had ADHD, but the possibility is there that he stood out so much on his own because he didn’t want to stand out.

Robert, the other friend I remember, was the exact opposite. His hair was short, cut close to his head, and his hair and skin were so dark, the color of night, and I thought beautiful. I had a crush on him. He was kind and soft-spoken. About halfway through the year he and his family moved to Africa. I remember it as a going home but it may have been an extended vacation. I don’t know. He sent us two postcards, but I only remember the one: the orange burst of a sunset in a place I thought I’d never see.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear

Earlier this weekend, my son asked why we have to celebrate Martin Luther King Day? I was a little appalled at the question. I asked how he felt learning about George Washington. He felt the same way. Part of me was glad it was his dislike of history rather than some kind of bias. I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him other than that it’s important for everyone to know what he did, what others like him died for, that the civil rights movement was ongoing, even today.

It might be good news that he didn’t think it was a big deal because for him there is no question about equal rights between the races. No one’s told him any different and for him, the civil rights movement is history; it isn’t a current event for him. Like most white Americans, he lives in a post-racial America. It’s very different for Black kids his age and older. But in our house, we do know who Trayvon Martin is; who Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The last presidential election, when I heard Rep. John Lewis of Georgia talk about voter disenfranchment I got chills listening to him, a living icon of the civil rights movement. I’m in the middle of reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson about the Great Black Migration from the South to the North and West that took place from 1915 to 1970. Knowing the history and recognizing some names in passing, cities that will always stand out, like Birmingham and Selma, and Little Rock; this book moved me to tears when I was least expecting it. I have to pause at each chapter to absorb what was going on in the lives of Black men and women at those times, and still today. I needed time to think; to reflect on something I sometimes think I can relate to, but I can’t quite.

Growing up Jewish I always felt a connection to African Americans, and civil rights. I was proud to have Sammy Davis, Jr. and Rod Carew as two of my people. I think it was the parallels of slavery that drew us together in the first place, outsiders looking in, natural allies, and I’m more than a little saddened at how the two groups who should be standing up for each other seem to have moved apart in recent years.

Martin Luther King Day should be a day to commemorate Dr. King’s life, his works, and his assassination, but it is also a time to regroup; to reevaluate how far rights have come and how far they have yet to go. It’s time to realize the steps back and reclaim them.

The movement is not over; it is still moving forward and Dr. King reminds us that the way is not finished. Each generation picks up its part and carries it further. These are not Black rights, or white rights; these are civil rights and they’re for everyone.

When you make rights available for more people, they do not get more rights; you do not get less rights; everyone gets equal rights and that is what we should all be striving for.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.