In honor of Martin Luther King Day, this month I’m reviewing two books that articulate the importance of non-violent direct action to the civil rights movement. These books are not just for young people. Everyone interested in the civil rights movement, past and future will find them engaging and will undoubtedly learn something new. I did.
March Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, GA, 2016.
This third book, like the preceding two, in the March series of graphic “novels” (in reality, graphic memoir), begins and ends with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bookending the remarkable life of John Lewis and the civil rights movement in this way gives one the sense of watching history unfold in the most unlikely way. When George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and when non-violent demonstrators were beaten and killed, could anyone imagine a day when there would be an African-American President?
The comic book style makes it easy to read all three books at once. Even though they are a fast read, I found myself lingering a bit over many of the entries. The words of Fannie Lou Hamer describing how she was beaten—by Black prisoners forced to beat other Black prisoners—to within an inch of her life; the specter of children fire-hosed and arrested; the incredible violence that was perpetrated on non-violent demonstrators who sometimes were doing no more than waiting in line outside the courthouse in an effort to register to vote. (A word of caution: the language used is the actual language used by many who fought against the civil rights movement.)
As we prepare to say goodbye to Barack Obama, it is worth our time to take a moment and look back on what has transpired in our history to bring us this far. It is also worth it to look forward and realize we as a nation have, to paraphrase a great poet, miles to go before we sleep. If history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot become complacent. At the very least, we must vote. But more than that we must engage with our government, be it local or federal, on issues dear to hearts. We must be vigilant about our rights, because when rights are taken away from one person they are taken away from every person.
Although targeted to young people, March should be read by everyone.
Bayard Rustin, The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long. Quaker Press of Friends General Conference. Philadelphia, Pa, 2014.
“On a hot August afternoon in 1963, Bayard Rustin stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial…he stepped out of the shadows to read the words he had prepared.”
Wait a minute. Don’t you mean Martin Luther King stepped up to speak? Wasn’t that the day of his “I have a dream” speech? Yes, and yes. But Bayard Rustin, the organizational wizard behind the march was there too. Most people have never heard of him.
Bayard Rustin was a pacifist who was arrested for not giving up his seat in the whites only section of a bus thirteen years before Rosa Parks. He taught Martin Luther King the tenets of non-violence. He organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Bayard Rustin was also gay and that fact explains why most people have never heard of him. Besides getting arrested for non-violent civil disobedience, he was also arrested on “morals” charges. More than once, he had to take a step back and work behind the scenes, so as not to compromise the goals of non-violent civil disobedience in the cause of civil rights.
In 1946, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation on interstate busses was unconstitutional. In 1947 Bayard Rustin and an interracial group of fifteen men from the Fellowship of Reconciliation* boarded busses. African Americans sat in front. White riders sat in the front, middle and back of the bus. Arrests followed. But this was not the first time Bayard was arrested for sitting in the whites only section. The first time was in 1942, when upon boarding a bus, a white woman called him a n….
Bayard Rustin was arrested, beaten, and served on a prison chain gang. He was shunned by his own allies for being gay. But he always managed to pick himself up and continue his important work. His life’s passion was to teach the non-violent techniques of Gandhi, and he never wavered from that work. In his youth, his beautiful speaking and singing voice attracted attention. Later, his outstanding organizational skills served him well behind the scenes. Celebrating his life and work is long overdue. This book accomplishes that in a way that is accessible to people both young–and not so young. Today he would not have to live in the shadows, but even there, this “Invisible Activist” accomplished more than most.
*Fellowship of Reconciliation: An interfaith peace organization of pacifists dedicated to Gandhi’s principles of non-violent direct action.