This review was first posted on my Goodreads account over here.
It can be hard to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that, because we’ve all seen pictures and heard Dr. King’s Dream Speech, been told the broad strokes like, “The Freedom Riders did ______” and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott was _____,” it’s easy to think that it’s a story that you know. It’s kind of like the Holocaust–it’s a story that’s so huge, and been told so many times, that we forget that it took place on a small human scale, not not just a big social upheaval scale.
Congressman John Lewis’ memoir, written in the form of a graphic novel (also written by staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by artist Nate Powell), has been a pretty good antidote to that skittering, shallow version of history for me.
Book One starts with Congressman Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama; his early experiences on his family’s farm, his early call to ministry and social justice, his college years in Nashville, TN and the first sit ins and protests he participated in. The framing device of the story is Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, so we sort of switch back and forth between 1960-62 and 2009. Book One ends in the middle of the Nashville lunch counter sit in protests. (Book Two covers the remainder of the sit ins, Congressman Lewis’ experiences as a Freedom Rider, his elevation to SNCC chairman, and his speech at the 1962 March on Washington.)
Gone are the days when a couple hundred African-Americans can bring downtown Nashville to a standstill simply by taking up space at lunch counters, when just 80 people could fill a county jail and max out the criminal justice system for that day. We’ve expanded the criminal justice system exponentially, and become accustomed to criminalizing an enormous percentage of our populace in the process. How many people are arrested and processed every single day in mid-sized American cities?
What shocked me (it shouldn’t have shocked me, but kind of did) was not the behavior of the white people in the story, but the way that the police and white civilians worked together to attack, undermine, and refuse to work with the black people. The perpetuation of segregation in the South was truly the job of every white citizen, policeman, lawmaker, or shopowner. White businessmen closed their stores and left black customers sitting at lunch counters in the dark, undermining their own ability to earn money rather than give in to the demands for desegregated lunch counters. White police departments delayed responding to black protestors’ calls reporting violence and asking for protection, and let white vigilantes attack black people with impunity. White police officers, of course, arrested black protestors, and Bull Connor turned dogs and firehouses onto them. White people destroyed property rather than share space. I wonder how far they would have gone to protect their racist interests and power, if the federal government hadn’t stepped in. The mayor of Nashville crumbled when challenged; but Bull Connor and the mayor of Birmingham, it seems, would have happily burned down the entire South rather than give in.
The other thing that this book made me think of is that systems–whether racist or not–exist because the populace tacitly allow them to exist. We give systems power by complying with them. When you take away that compliance–when you refuse to ride the bus, when you sit at the lunch counter, when you register to vote, when you try to buy a ticket to the movies–you are upending the system’s ability to continue operating as it has. And that is the real power of nonviolence.
That’s a lot of rambling for a short book, I suppose. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Aydin, who wrote the text, have done something powerful, in spite of the relatively few words they used to do it; helped in no small part by Mr. Powell’s drawings that accompany. It’s a quick read–I got through it in about a day–but is not shallow. Quite the opposite. This is a massively important book that should be read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think, and I hope, that it will be read by people who might not normally pick up a memoir or a biography. If I was a middle or a high school teacher, I would be handing out copies to all of my students.
So good. So so so good. So glad this book exists.