This seems like a good time for a book review.
A few months ago, US Congressman, and well known Civil Rights activist, John Lewis passed away. Just prior to his passing, a biography of his life was released in the form of a graphic novel trilogy, appropriately titled, MARCH. For someone like me, who professes to know and love History, it was an eye-opening memoir. I am very thankful to the friend who recommended I read Mr. Lewis’ story. Not only did MARCH deepen my understanding of how systemic racism has kept people of colour in a state of oppression for generation after generation but, it has heightened the sense of justice that many are feeling right now because of how the recent US Presidential election has played out; particularly, in the state of Georgia.
The story of Mr. Lewis’ life often focuses on that day when, alongside other Civil Rights leaders, he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was met with armed resistance from law enforcement officers. The incident was broadcast on national television and is generally acknowledged as the tipping point in the creation of The Civil Rights Act in the United States.
As people, we tend to like our myths, our national stories, to be simple and easy to understand. Sometimes, injustice IS easy to understand but, more often than not, the background of the stories that shape nations and that go down in History are multi-faceted and slow in forming. John Lewis would be the first to tell you that he was not solely responsible for The Civil Rights Act coming to fruition. He would tell you that the journey to freedom and justice for people of colour in the US was long and hard and filled with many desperate and dangerous times. He would, also, tell you that racial equality is still more a dream than a reality.
In MARCH, Mr. Lewis demonstrated how deeply engrained the inequities faced by people of colour were in America. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with stories such as Rosa Parks purposely sitting in the “white” section of the bus and being arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that saw people of colour refuse to use public transportation for over a year. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with the iconic photo of little Ruby Bridges, a Grade 1 student, being escorted into a formerly segregated school by US Marshalls, as angry white parents hurled vitriol upon her. The hatred from white adults to that black child is palpable. The de-segregation of schools is widely seen as one of the biggest accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, it would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t possess, at least, a passing familiarity with Martin Luther King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.
These are the stories we know. As a white person, I was quite familiar with the broad details of each of these stories. As someone who believes in racial justice and equal rights, I always have nodded my head and smiled whenever the stories of Dr. King or Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or Billie Holiday are told. Then, I read all three books in the MARCH trilogy. I have to be honest and say that I am ashamed at how little about these stories I ever really knew. The mythic nature of sitting on a bus or walking into a school or crossing a bridge were never just about those, specific moments. Instead, they were the culmination of years of effort by scores of dedicated, courageous people. As Mr. Lewis would tell you, You can’t climb a mountain by starting at the top.
What I learned from reading MARCH can be boiled down to a few main points: 1- Systemic injustice means living in a society with laws and policies purposefully enacted that favour one group over another. Furthermore, it means that the oppressed party is often blamed and punished for actions that others are not and/or they are denied access to opportunities and freedoms that the other group enjoys without question. This is a textbook answer, on my part. But, what MARCH showed so clearly was how so many aspects of living life as a person of colour was difficult and unfair. For example, I read a book a few months ago called The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. It showed how the City of New Orleans had enacted bylaws about the zoning for housing that made it harder to purchase homes in certain neighbourhoods for people of colour and then, once neighbourhoods began to form that contains mostly people of colour, by-laws enabling industrial development in those areas were enacted thus, lowering the value of the homes and creating unsafe living conditions because of chemicals, pollution, etc. “Lower class” areas of the city became places where folks with few options ended up. What systemic injustice does is create conditions that eliminate options in life for whole groups of people. As a result, an oppressed group ends up struggling for basic rights throughout the whole of their lives.
2- The second thing I learned from reading MARCH was that one of the driving forces behind the entire Civil Rights movement was voter registration. In a democratic society, having the right to vote enables each citizen to have their say in how things are run and by whom. As a white person, I have usually only dwelled on the fragility of my right to vote on such occasions as Remembrance Day (here is Canada) when we pay our formal respects to the men and women of the Armed Forces who fought in wars for “our freedom”. I am privileged beyond belief to assume that I will be able to vote every time there in an election in my area. In MARCH, Mr. Lewis showed quite clearly how many jurisdictions in the southern US had formal policies in place that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people of colour to register to vote. Things like having criteria for registration that contained clauses that most people of colour couldn’t pass or else, having very limited registration hours so very few aspiring registrants could be processed. Sometimes, people of colour were given academic tests, with questions on them that were impossible to answer correctly. Many people of colour were intimidated with physical reprisals if they attempted to register to vote. In those days, the Ku Klux Klan was very active and had many ways, subtle and otherwise, of letting a black family know that their actions were being monitored. One of John Lewis biggest roles in the Civil Rights Movement had to do with helping people of colour register to vote. This was because, in a democratic society, if you want to change the way things are being run where you live, you vote for change. For people of colour, one of the best chances they had to change the laws of racial injustice which so marked their lives, was to register to vote. Registering people of colour to vote was dangerous work. People like John Lewis were often the subject of physical abuse. Mr. Lewis often served time in jail for his actions. He famously called this, “good trouble” because of the importance to him and so many others, of this cause.
3- The third major thing I learned to appreciate more after reading MARCH was the importance to this cause, and to any other, for that matter, of being organized. It is difficult to affect change when you are one person, alone. But, in numbers, many people can make great things happen. This point was brought home, again and again, in MARCH. Mr Lewis talked repeatedly about organizational meetings held in churches and in the basements of safe homes and in the jails where he and his colleagues were so often incarcerated. Not only was having an organizational approach important when it came to the number of people involved, it was, also, clear that those on the front lines needed certain intangible qualities such as courage, determination and a positive outlook on life. Love trumps Hate every time but, sometimes, Hate holds sway for awhile and it isn’t always easy to keep willing oneself to fight the good fight when Hope is in short supply. One of the over-arching themes of MARCH was how relentlessly bleak things seemed much of the time….how difficult it was to make even the slightest bit of progress….how much of a struggle it was to remain optimistic….how easy it would have been to simply give in and give up in the face of such violence, hostility and systemic injustice from those tasked with being our leaders.
John Lewis would be proud today.
In the tradition of activist organizers like Mr. Lewis, I present a lady named Stacey Abrams. Ms. Abrams has been involved in the civic life of the State of Georgia for most of her life. A few years ago, she ran on the Democratic ticket, for Governor of Georgia. She ran a highly respected campaign but, in the end, she lost her election to her Republican rival. Throughout this contest, there were accusations of voter suppression. Her rival was white. He was acting Governor at the time and was accused of enacting laws that made it more difficult for Georgians of colour to vote. If you can’t vote then, you have a much more difficult chance of enabling change to occur. At the time of Ms. Abrams defeat, it seemed like “business as usual” for people of colour in the southern US. This was especially ominous because of how supportive the US President was, at the time, of white nationalist policies. Undaunted, Ms. Abrams dusted herself off and re-dedicated her efforts to register as many voters as possible and, as well, make sure there was an organized effort, all across the state to get that vote out to the polls.
It is possible that her drive to register voters may end up being the reason that President Trump loses the 2020 Presidential election. At this moment, Georgia has been declared “too close to call” because the vote tallies for President Trump and his challenger, Democrat, Joe Biden, are nearly deadlocked. Georgia has always been viewed as a safe Republican state, in large part, because of laws that limited the ability to vote of people of colour. If, in fact, Georgia does end up being declared as a victory for Joe Biden, it will push his Electoral College totals over the threshold for victory in this election. If so, a large share of the credit for this dramatic turn-around will be accorded Stacey Abrams. When asked, I am sure she will say the exact same thing that Mr. Lewis would have said….she didn’t do it alone. Being organized, being courageous and possessing an unflinching sense of determination are all necessary ingredients in helping to secure racial justice.
So, as Georgia prepares for its moment in the national spotlight, I think back to all that I learned while reading MARCH by John Lewis. The journey to the top of the mountain has been long but, on this day, the summit appears within reach. And, from high up above, I reckon that Mr. John Lewis is smiling.