Michael Epstein | BookMarks: Vermont reads John Lewis's 'March'

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John Lewis is a 17-term congressman from Georgia's 5th District. He was a leading participant in the sit-ins, marches, and political pressure brought to bear on the federal and state governments in the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in the end of segregated schools and facilities and the ability of black Americans to vote. Lewis is also the co-author, along with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, of a three-volume graphic memoir, "March" (Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016) that tells the gripping story of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and `60s.

The first volume in that series has been chosen by the Vermont Humanities Council as their 2019 selection for Vermont Reads. VHC's mission is to "engage all Vermonters in the world of ideas, foster a culture of thoughtfulness, and inspire a lifelong love of reading and learning." One way in which they have pursued that work has been through selecting an annual Vermont Reads book and providing free books and support for community engagement with that book to more than 200 of Vermont's towns.

The choice of a graphic memoir is particularly apt, since Vermont is the only state in the U.S. that has an official Cartoon Laureate as well as The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. The choice was also perfectly matched with this time in America when equal justice for all of our citizens is at the center of our public discourse.

"March: Book One" tells the story of John Lewis and his involvement in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. The first chapter begins with the Bloody Sunday march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965 and then jumps to the day of the presidential inauguration of Barak Obama in January 2009. The story moves back and forth in time from the inauguration to events in Lewis's life as he recounts the civil rights struggle to two young black children whose mother has brought them to Lewis's office the morning of the inauguration. We learn of Lewis's childhood on a sharecropper's farm in rural Alabama and his gradually growing awareness of racial bigotry.

So why didn't John Lewis simply follow his father's and grandfather's paths as Alabama farmers, scarcely aware of the outside world or questioning the segregation that Jim Crow laws enforced in the South after the Civil War? According to the book, Lewis became fixated on the idea of becoming a preacher after hearing a young Atlanta preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr, preaching the social gospel on the radio. He was encouraged to become a reader by his elementary school librarian, and his eyes were further opened when a maternal uncle took him on a trip to visit relatives in Buffalo, New York. The big city with its integration of blacks and whites and the events gradually unfolding in the South moved Lewis from preaching to acting.

The arrest of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, the emergence of King as a leader of the anti-segregation movement, and the teaching of non-violence by Jim Lawson, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University all inspired Lewis who by that time had enrolled in a black Baptist theological seminary in Nashville. Lewis led his fellow students in non-violent sit-ins at lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. There were beatings and arrests, but eventually their non-violent approach desegregated those counters.

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Book One ends with the desegregation of Nashville's lunch counters in 1959 and with Congressman Lewis heading out of his office to attend the first black president's inauguration in 2009.

Though the Vermont Reads program only selected "March: Book One," I went on to read the second and third volumes in this series published in 2015 and 2016, and I highly recommend them as well.

The final pages of "March: Book Three" conclude the series with two sets of panels. One shows the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an important step towards equal justice and one man/one vote. President Johnson was able to achieve congressional approval for this law in large part because of the national outrage after the TV networks showed 15 minutes of live footage from the bloody attack by Alabama state troopers on unarmed marchers on the Selma bridge. The other set of panels shows Lewis and his aide, Andrew Aylin, returning from Obama's inauguration and discussing the project that resulted in these books. The reader is left with a sense of optimism in both 1965 and 2009.

How sad that only a few years later we see the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act reduced by the courts, the reappearance of the Ku Klux Klan and other radical right wing groups, and messages of exclusion and resentment about "others" coming from the White House.

Reading "March" is a timely activity today for both young and old. I was a teenager during the 1960s, and it was important for me to be reminded of the courageous efforts of Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Violet Liuzzo, and hundreds of others who fought for social justice, voting rights, and equal access during those times.

It is perhaps even more important for today's young people to learn about how we were able as a nation to move from unconstitutional exclusion and separation to the election of an African-American president. Perhaps knowing that background will help us understand how we seem to have lost our way in more recent days, once again identifying the "other" as "the enemy." Reading, discussing, and exploring together is the work that the VHC is encouraging. We'd all be wise to participate.

Michael F. Epstein reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. You can find over 1,000 ideas for what to read next and reach him at www.EpsteinReads.com.


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