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John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell

Price: 
13.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

Thoroughly inspiring and beautifully drawn with enormous humanity, this is a far cry from any dry or dictatorial polemic you might understandably be expecting on a subject as serious as America’s Civil Rights movement.

Instead, it is a highly personal, colourful and conversational first-hand account of Congressman John Lewis’ education about and then involvement in the emphatically non-violent protest movement as told, initially, to a mother and two young sons visiting his office before the inauguration of President Barrack Obama in January 2009, and it goes all the way back to his rural childhood on a farm in Alabama, preaching to his chickens.

There Lewis and Aydin have found the perfect structure: the inauguration of America’s first black President whose election, I might add, my friends and I all thought improbable up to almost the last minute given the strength of persisting prejudices. I would consider it one of the five greatest miracles of my lifetime, except that it was no miracle: it was the direct result of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ lifelong struggles for basic human decency in the form of equality in the face of extreme retributory violence. Congressman John Lewis was one of those who, inspired by Jim Lawson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was at the centre of this movement, initially through staging peaceful sit-ins at downtown stores which so generously allowed black people to buy their goods, but not sit alongside white customers at their food counters and eat lunch. Or use their toilets.

But before all that there were chickens to be named, nurtured and preached to. Never forget the chickens! Not a particularly good idea getting that close to something destined for your dinner table, but heigh ho! It’s not necessarily a good idea to disobey your farmer father during harvest idea, either, but the second Lewis got a taste for school, nothing could stop his thirst for learning. A lot of lads desperately skip school; Lewis was so desperate for school he skipped home.

It’s not something the Congressman makes a big issue out of, but I think this early act of familial disobedience – risking the wrath of a father you love – is an enormously telling show of character for someone who would go on to commit non-aggressive acts of civil disobedience, always within the law. Let us not forget that when national Desegregation Laws were passed demanding all schools were integrated, it was local white suits in power who disobeyed them: that was breaking the law!

I raced through this entire book in one sitting, and what I came away with overwhelmingly (along with these individuals’ humbling courage and commitment – a commitment not necessarily shared by their more conservative elders but I leave Lewis to judge, not I), was the emphasis not only on non-violence but civility: refusing to react to anger with anger. The students initially staging test sit-ins had trained themselves rigorously in this:

“Lawson taught us how to protect ourselves, how to disarm our attackers by connecting with their humanity (“Maintain eye contact, John!”), how to protect each other, how to survive. But the hardest part to learn – to truly understand, deep in your heart – was how to find love for your attacker.”

However, their ranks swelled so fast after their initial attempts to be served at the downtown stores’ food counters that new members were issued with the following memorandum:

“DO NOT:
1. Strike back or curse if abused.
2. Laugh out.
3. Hold conversations with floor walker.
4. Leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so.
5. Block entrances to stores outside or the aisles inside.

DO:
1. Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times.
2. Sit straight; always face the counter.
3. Report all serious incidents to your leader.
4. Refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner.
5. Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.

MAY GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU.”

It is difficult to type those instructions out without trembling significantly with respect, for although, as Lewis points out… “Violence does beget violence. But the opposite is just as true. Fury spends itself pretty quickly when there’s no fury facing it.” … there was a lot of fury and violence to be endured before either subsided, which the police declined to – oh, I don’t know – “police” before sweeping in later to arrest the law-abiding black citizens.

Brilliantly, they refused to pay bail (reduced from $100 a head to just $5 because their police cells couldn’t cope) and were released anyway. They also refused to pay the fines when the all-white jury later convicted them of breaking laws which didn’t exist and so spent time in the county jail house.

“We feel that by paying these fines, we would be contributing to, and supporting, the injustices and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants. Thank you.”

Always with the “Thank you”. Seriously, even when refused service at the counter: “Thank you”.

Right, I am in danger of telling you the plot. What I will leave you to learn is Lewis’ first childhood road trip through the more racist American states, and all the planning that had to be done to avoid trouble, the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy, the formation and growth of the various student organisations, the peaceful 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was not met with peace by Alabama state troopers, and how this John Lewis chap imaginatively improvised an incubator for all those chicken eggs.

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