by Eleanor Carpenter ’20

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The dedication of the book, “To the past and future children of the movement,” signifies Lewis’s true purpose: he wants the movement, like this book, to be accessible to all.

John Lewis’s graphic novel March is a tale about the congressman’s struggle and perseverance throughout the Civil Rights Movement. March follows John Lewis from his childhood home in Pike County, Alabama, to Buffalo, Ohio on his first trip up north, to a college in Nashville called American Baptist Theological Seminary, to Montgomery to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Nashville lunch counters, then to Nashville jails, and finally to the mayor of Nashville in 1963 where Lewis and others brought up segregation over and over until the mayor gave in to the commands of freedom and equality.

John Lewis is a congressman from Georgia. Lewis is one of the “Big Six” leaders of Civil Rights Movement along with A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer Jr., Whitney Young Jr., and Roy Wilkins. He still is at it today marching and educating younger generations.

 

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John Lewis and others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday on the march from Selma to Montgomery.

 

When he had first started preaching sermons, they were just to the chickens that his family had him look after. He would sit in the barn with them and preach to them, but all they would do is stare, bow their heads, shake their heads, but never say amen. He had a bible that he had been reading since he was about 5 years old, he didn’t understand it but he would still go and preach to his chickens.

The first time Lewis had heard Martin Luther King speak was over a radio one Sunday morning in 1955 when he was 15. King spoke of peaceful protests, the current one being the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“Dr. King’s example showed me that it was possible to do more as a minister than what I had witnessed in my own church. I was inspired.”

Lewis soon started preaching his own sermons, to people this time.

Lewis was an influential thinker and wise beyond his years. He hid from his family so that he wouldn’t have to work and could instead go to school; he loved to learn. At first his parents were upset, but eventually they understood that there was nothing they could do to hold him back. This led to the college he attended: his mother saw a brochure for the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Although he greatly enjoyed being at American Baptist Theological Seminary, he wanted to study at Troy University after having attended his other college for a few years; At this point in time however, Troy University (and basically all colleges/universities in the south), did not allow African American students.

Lewis sought out King, asking him to aid him in getting into Troy. One of the issues facing them was that in order for Lewis to get in, they would have to sue the State of Alabama. Since Lewis was still a minor, his parents would need to give their consent. After careful consideration, they did not. When Lewis met with King, King talked about how things could go bad for his [Lewis’s] family:

“But if you want to go, we’ll help — we’ll raise the
money to file those suits, and we’ll support you all the
way. But you must keep in mind — your parents could
lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or
burned. You may get hurt — or your family may get hurt.”

After his intent on attending Troy University was kicked out, Lewis then turned to aid other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, organizing protests so that he could still work with Martin Luther King. Soon Lewis and others started attending meetings on how to hold peaceful, non violent protests and sit ins, as influenced by Dr. King. After Lewis had been attending and became a prominent member, Lewis started to bring more and more people to these meet and teach sessions. These sessions were in place to teach people how to keep their calm and remain peaceful, even when those around them were not. Many people quit because they just couldn’t handle it, especially when it was their friends who were doing the humiliating and hurting.

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An excerpt from MARCH depicting the types of humiliation and abuse that lunch counter protestors went through.

 

Many of the sessions involved how to handle lunch counters, and what to do if aggravators came in and started behaving violently. The lunch counter sit ins started out as peaceful demonstrations, leaving after being told they wouldn’t be served. But after a few test runs they started to stay even after being told to leave.  After a while, the restaurants started catching on, and closing down their lunch counters, but protestors would still show up and sit, waiting to be served. This angered many white people because they saw it almost as an attack on them, forcing them into a position where they were uncomfortable. On several occasions, whites taunted the protesters. Sometimes it turned more serious. There was one instance where white segregation supporters started to violently attack the peaceful protestors. After the white aggravators left, the police showed up, and arrested the protestors. The police had to make trips all day to get all the protesters because more just kept showing up. Once in the jail, a bail was set on them for $100, but no one wanted to go, they all wanted to stay together. Later their bail was dropped to $5 and finally they were just let go.

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One of the many times John Lewis was arrested during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.

In May of 1960, Lewis and other students from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other student groups were talking to the mayor about segregation in Nashville, Tennessee:

Lewis’s partner asked the mayor: “Will you use the
prestige of your office to appeal to the citizens to
stop racial discrimination?”

To which the mayor replied easily: “I appeal to all
citizens to end discrimination. To have no bigotry,
no bias, no hatred.”

“Do you mean to include lunch counters?”
Condescendingly, the mayor ignored the lunch counters:
“Little lady, I stopped segregation seven years ago at the
airport when I first took office, and there has been no
trouble there since.”

“Then, Mayor — do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?”
“Yes. … that’s up to the store managers, of course.”

After this interaction, the mayor has in fact made an order to desegregate the lunch counters.

One of the reasons John Lewis’s story is so striking and powerful is he was so young compared to the other Big Six leaders. He was a teen and young adult who was a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, he was a chairman with SNCC, he helped organize the March on Washington, and many other Civil Rights events.

Lewis was a teen and young adult during the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t just sit back and hope it would blow through. Reading and learning about personal account of the movement now are more important now than ever. March Book 1 came out in 2013, after President Obama was elected. Lewis is pushing for millennials and new generations to fight for their rights.

“Let the spirit of history be our guide.” Lewis said this as he was leaving his office to attend President Obama’s inauguration. By this he means that history will always repeat itself if we do nothing to change it. When Lewis wrote that, he had no idea what would be happening now.

 

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