[Each year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I share a special post on better remembering the many layers of one of our most important and inspiring figures and voices. This week I’ve followed it up with a series AmericanStudying some of King’s colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement. Add your thoughts on King, the movement, or any related histories and issues for a crowd-sourced civil rights post, please!]
On three moments that together reflect the presence and role of a living legend.
1) The Bridge: As the film Selma (and the wonderful performance by young actor Stephan James) potently illustrates, young John Lewis, one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, played an instrumental role in the voting rights protests and marches linked to that city and its Edmund Pettis Bridge. Lewis was of course far from the only young participant in those efforts, and he would be the first to remind us of the contributions of so many others; but what he perfectly provides (as, again, the film portayed) is a symbolic representation of all those young Civil Rights activists—their inspiration they took from more senior leaders, the impacts they themselves made on the movement, and, perhaps most significantly, the way they carried those efforts forward into the decades that followed.
2) The Attack: Lewis hasn’t just been a social and political activist for all those subsequent decades, however; he has also, mostly for good but occasionally in troubling ways, been used as a continued symbol of African American triumphs and struggles. Perhaps the clearest example of a troubling moment was on the day when the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare, as it’s generally known) was to be voted into law by Congress; as Congressman Lewis walked to the Capitol Building to cast his vote for the bill, he and other African American colleagues were (allegedly, but the incident was caught on tape and seems clear enough) verbally attacked by a number of Tea Party protesters and spit upon by one of them. While the attack was of course inextricably tied to the climate of extremism that the Tea Party and others had whipped up around the bill, I would argue that it’s just as clear that Lewis was individually targeted in direct relation to the racial identity he shares with President Obama; as, that is, a symbol for racist protesters threatened by these African American figures and leaders. That’s one of the most frustrating but undeniable aftermaths of the Civil Rights Movement, and one succinctly symbolized by this attack on Lewis.
3) The Convention: Yet if Lewis (like all of us, and especially like all public figures) has been at times defined by others in ways outside of his control, he has also continued to tell his own story in unique and inspiring ways. Perhaps the most unique is March, a trilogy of graphic novels about his life and Civil Rights efforts that Lewis co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell; book one was published in August 2013, and book two in January 2015. In support of that latter publication and to help spread the word about the graphic novel to a new generation, Lewis attended the 2015 Comic Con, perhaps the most famous pop culture convention in the world. The image of Lewis surrounded by excited young fans, looking for all the world like an aging but still vibrant superhero (which, of course, he is), is one of my favorites of the last few years—and reflects just how much this Civil Rights legend still has to contribute to our communal conversations and identity.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Civil Rights figures, histories or responses you’d share?
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