With the death of John Lewis and recent demonstrations in support of criminal justice reform, I thought I would review, once again, these graphic memoirs of John Lewis. These books begin and end 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 picture of Fannie Lou Hammer being beaten—by Black prisoners forced to beat other Black prisoners—to within an inch of her life; the specter of children being 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.)
If you missed these books when they first came out, get ahold of them now. If you’ve read them before, they are worth reading again. Especially now. To quote President Obama, speaking at John Lewis’ funeral: “Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots, so people don’t get sick.”
Once again, it is time to March.