The last surviving icon out of the "Big Six" civil rights activists, Congressman John Lewis, at 75, has years ahead of him to dream of and work toward the society he and his epic comrades, including Martin Luther King Jr., dedicated their lives to.
"We are better off but not there yet," he told a large audience today at a book signing at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. We must serve as a model for the rest of the world. Consider that a library in Troy, Alabama, refused to lend him a book as a child but he returned there to sign books in 1998.
Today's book, though, published in January of this year, is volume 2 of his autobiographical graphic novel March. He plans four volumes to tell, in comics and comprehensible words, including many interjections, his story vividly and poignantly: of the Civil Rights movement from its inception after the 1954 lawsuit Brown v Board of Education into the present. Here, he said, looking around at the many young people who attended, the "struggle to redeem the soul of America" is at a standstill.
The 50-mile march to commemorate the massacre of civil rights activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, was a recent reminder of this. Yes, the first African American president, Barack Obama, was there with him, both "teared up." Had there been no "bridge," he might not be standing there today. But [I add] things seem to have become worse since Obama's election. How could that be?
Well, say the conservatives, here's Obama in office. Who needs the Voting Rights Act anymore? and so on.
The Congressman looked at the youngsters in the audience, including some preschoolers, and said that they represented the most tolerant generation ever. The politics of the nineteen sixties are similar to the politics of now. But what do they know about the Civil Rights movement? The five words Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. seem to be all. He expressed hope that his books will reach young people and inspire them to become better informed. They must read everything they can, to achieve this, he later added.
Lewis told his own story briefly and entertainingly. As a farm boy growing up in rural Alabama in poverty, he decided early on to become a preacher, practicing to an audience of the chickens he tended to--a better audience, he added, then many of the new additions to this year's Congress. He heard about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King when he was 15 years old, a freshman in high school. Though Brown had been signed and sealed for nearly a decade, in 1961 Greyhound buses were still segregated. That was the year of the famous Freedom Ride. The first incident during the ride occurred in Charlotte, North Carolina, when a black man was arrested for seeking a shoe shine in a whites-only waiting room. He was arrested.
In another incident, he and some comrades were beaten up by Klansmen, one of whom came to him in 1971 with his son to apologize. He and Lewis hugged each other, weeping. But still among us are others like a racist who gauged out the eyes of an activist, Aydin later added.
The strictures that kept the nonviolent movement going were never be bitter nor hostile; keep your eyes on the prize. Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. had also advised the activists to keep everything they wrote and said clear and simple.
Lewis's staff assistant and co-author of the March series, Andrew Aydin told the audience that another comic book edited by MLK had inspired children into the first stage of the Civil Rights movement. A reporter from a conservative newspaper told Aydin that after his nine-year-old son read the first volume of March, which he had given him, the son became a civil rights marcher, in his own living room.
Aydin later added most poignantly that he wished that the massacres and harsh treatment that had to occur to integrate this country had never happened.
But both speakers quickly opened up the room to questions and answers, with younger members of the audience heard first. One asked if he ever lost faith--the answer, of course, was no, because "we're one people, one family. We have to look after each other and care for each other."
Lewis recalled that he had been with Robert F. Kennedy Sr. the day that MLK was shot; and then had been with him in Los Angeles, when RFK was shot. They had held a long conversation right before RFK's last speech.
Another child asked why he had decided to run for Congress. Lewis said that he advanced from a voting registration activist to city council in Atlanta, where he won 69 percent of the vote. From there he advanced to his present position, which he has held since 1987. His district is composed of the northern three quarters of Atlanta.