Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Getting into Good Trouble

For the 600+ people who heard John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell speak at NCC last week, it was clearly an experience to remember.

Invited to talk about March: Book One, NCC's common reading, the three explained the evolution of their book, a graphic novel recalling both the the early years of the American civil rights movement and John Lewis's emergence as a human rights activist. 

Their presentation was interesting not only to those who remember the days of sit-ins and marches but to people, mostly young, who are fans of the graphic novel and who view it as a serious art form.

The day offered something for everyone.

For me--and countless others, I'm sure--the highlight was John Lewis's account of his own life. Remembering his childhood on a farm in rural Alabama, Lewis talked about his early experiences with discrimination and racism, including being forced to sit in the "Colored Only" section of a local movie theater, being turned down by a college that did not admit African Americans, and even being constantly warned by his parents to learn to live with injustice and stay out of trouble.

Lewis did anything but avoid trouble, of course.  Inspired by the words and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., he openly challenged segregation laws and practices through lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registration marches and other activities. In his early twenties he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group of young people intent on doing battle--through nonviolent protests--with any and all institutions that denied African Americans their rights.

Challenging segregation practices in the South was dangerous back then.  Lewis described being frequently harassed, beaten, and arrested for his actions.  Maybe his most frightening moment, he recalled, was being severely beaten by police during "Bloody Sunday," the now famous march from Selma, Alabama, to Mongomery undertaken to secure voting rights for African Americans. 

"I thought I was going to die," he told his NCC audience.

Given all that John Lewis has been through, you might think he'd be an angry, cynical man today--especially in light of recent acts of violence against African Americans and efforts by some in Congress to weaken voting rights legislation. 

But he's not at all bitter. He told his audience to stay positive, to not get discouraged, and to continue to have faith in their beliefs. He encouraged students to be courageous and to stand up for their ideals and to make their voices heard. The man who's made a career out of getting into "good trouble"--in pursuit of equal rights for all--called upon students to do the same. His message was optimistic and inspirational, right down to his closing remarks: 

"We are going to redeem the soul of America.  We are going to save this planet for generations yet unborn."

In a world whose inhabitants routinely harass, torture, and even kill each other, we could all do well to hear a voice of peace and nonviolence.  And we could also use a healthy dose of John Lewis's optimism, energy, strength, integrity--and grit. 

Thanks, Congressman.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why John Lewis Matters

Imagine being a young Black man in the American South in 1960.  Imagine moving in a world that freely practiced racial segregation, openly celebrated White supremacy, and routinely responded to the mere presence of African Americans with beatings and lynchings.

Terrifying?  Intimidating?  Absolutely.  And hardly surprising, perhaps, that so many people--African Americans and others--felt forced to be as invisible as possible during that time.

But not John Lewis.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis was inspired, as a teenager, by the words of another young man: Martin Luther King, Jr.  King's belief in nonviolent protest as a means of challenging injustice resonated with Lewis, who was already seeking ways to respond to the poison of prejudice.

In the years that followed, Lewis would routinely challenge the racist laws and ways of the South. Whether it was sitting in at lunch counters that served only White customers; riding buses in direct violation of laws forbidding Whites and Blacks from sitting together on public transportation; founding a student movement--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)--dedicated to achieving racial justice; calling for equal rights in an inspired speech at the 1963 March on Washington; or taking part in a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965, Lewis frequently put his safety, even his life, on the line in the pursuit of racial justice.

Often he paid a heavy price for his activism.  On more than a few occasions he was insulted, ridiculed, threatened, harassed, beaten, and arrested for his actions.  As a freedom rider in the early sixties, he was attacked by a mob of White supremacists intent on silencing him and others who had challenged segregation practices.  And during his participation in the march to Montgomery--now known as "Bloody Sunday"--he was beaten so badly by Alabama police that he required hospitalization.

Still, Lewis persevered.  Committed to the philosophy of nonviolence, he and other civil rights activists refused to back down, calling America's (and the world's) attention to racial injustice and imploring the nation's leaders to take action. The civil rights legislation that followed in the sixties and beyond was the direct result of the idealism, commitment--and guts--of Lewis and others who were willing to risk everything for what was right.

In a sense, John Lewis, who'll speak at NCC this Monday (2 p.m., College Center), is fortunate. Having survived the tumultuous sixties, he's become a civil rights icon, a voice for equality for all, an author or co-author of several books (including MARCH, NCC's common reading for this year), and a respected member of the United States Congress, where he's served since the mid 1980's.  Many of his fellow activists were not so fortunate, victims of the mindless hatred and violence that were part of the American South during that chaotic time.

Not everyone can be John Lewis, of course.  Not everyone possesses the passion to devote one's life to righting wrongs and to risking everything for justice.  So when we cross paths with someone who's repeatedly taken that brave stance, we need to stop and listen.

That's why, come this Monday, we ALL need to listen to John Lewis.  It's not everyday we get the chance to meet somebody who's made history and who's changed the fabric of America.  He may be older now, but his spirit and message remain as young and vital and inspirational as they were all those years ago.