Tag Archives: civil disobedience

“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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“March: Book Two” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This book opens with an image of two hands shaking: one black and one white. For me, that sums up what this book is about: reaching across the race divide.

This volume focuses on the increased violence that blacks faced as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It can be difficult to read at times, but the message is so powerful and important, that the story must be told. One part really pained me. It was depicting an attack on civil rights activists in Montgomery, AL on May 20, 1961. A mom had brought her young boy to the demonstration and was encouraging him to partake in the violence.

“C’mon… harder, Danny! That’s my boy… git him! Them eyes… git them eyes!”

(p. 75)

It’s an image I could not shake, and it reinforced what I already believed—that racism is taught. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe that hatred is a natural state, but it is something that is learned.

Another thing that was not surprising yet resonated with me is how religion is twisted and used to justify hatred. This is evident in a quote from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

“The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the negro in Africa, separated from all other races.”

(p. 114)

Without question, though, the most powerful part of this volume is John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The book contains two versions of the speech. The edited version, which was the one he delivered, is presented with images in the graphic novel format. The original version, which was deemed a little too radical by some in the movement, is included as an appendix and is a great historical document.

The speech itself is too long to include here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirely. I will close the post with the closing words of John Lewis’ historic speech.

We will march through the streets of the south; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated south into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say: “Wake up, America! Wake up!!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

(p. 171)

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“March: Book One” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This is the first book in a three-volume graphic novel about civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. I had heard this discussed on a couple podcasts that I listen to and it piqued my interest, so when I heard that Andrew Aydin, one of the writers, was doing a talk at a local indie bookstore, I went and listened to what he had to say. I was so moved and inspired that I purchased the first volume and had him sign it.

The book describes Lewis’ early days of activism, when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins which were aimed at ending segregation. The stories of his past are presented as recollections from the Congressman on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, showing just how far civil rights have advanced in less than 50 years.

Before I talk about the text, I want to say something about Nate Powell’s artwork. It is excellent and visually captures the pain and emotion of that turbulent time. In addition, the choice to do all the artwork in black and white symbolically represents the contrast and division regarding race at that time in American history.

While in college, Lewis became inspired by the Social Gospel, which essentially asserted that one must apply the spiritual values from the Gospel to address social issues.

I loved the new ideas college was introducing me to, in religion and philosophy–but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Social Gospel. Here I was reading about justice, when there were people out there working to make it happen. I started to feel guilty for not doing more. I became restless.

(p. 65)

Later on, Lewis recounts his first meeting with Martin Luther King, who agreed to help Lewis try to get into Troy State University. King makes Lewis aware of the risks involved in challenging the State of Alabama and the Board of Education.

King: To attend Troy State, we’ll have to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education. You’re not old enough to file a suit–you’ll have to get your parents’ okay. They’re going to have to sign. 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. I don’t know what will happen.

(p. 71)

While reading this graphic novel, I learned that during the civil rights movement, an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published a comic about MLK that was intended to teach young people about non-violent resistance.

F.O.R. had also published a popular comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation.

(p. 76)

In his talk at the bookstore, Andrew Aydin told the attendees how he convinced John Lewis that the graphic novel format was the best way to tell his story. I am in full agreement. While the story itself is compelling and moving, it’s the images that make this such a visceral read. I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it, especially in a time when intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

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Applying “Common Sense” to Current Issues

CommonSenseLast year for my Independence Day blog post I read and commented on the Declaration of Independence. This year I opted for Common Sense by Thomas Paine. I’d read it years ago in college in my “Survey of American Literature” class, so I understood the concepts that Paine was trying to convey, essentially making a “common sense” argument in support of independence for the colonies.

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense. (p 23)

Overall, I found this to be pretty dull reading. Paine is slow in getting to the point and as far as his simple facts go, he sure uses a lot of words to state them. That said, I approached the text with the intent of seeing what, if anything, is still relevant today. I found a couple of passages that could be applied to current issues.

The first issue I would like to address is marriage equality. In the US, we have a history of failing to acknowledge that discrimination based upon sexual preference is morally wrong. Many people are still attempting to pass legislation narrowly dictating what types of marriages should be accepted in this country. Essentially, this behavior is what Paine asserts is the defense of custom.

A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason. (pp 1-2)

I see the tumult finally subsiding, as demonstrated by the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. The antiquated ideas that have been promoted as custom and tradition are finally being swept aside.

The next issue is that of commerce. Paine states that when commerce, or capitalism, becomes the main focus of a country, that country suffers. People become complacent and are not willing to take the risks necessary to advance society as a whole.

Commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defence. And history sufficiently informs us, that the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the non-age of a nation… The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. (p 51)

Paine concludes his pamphlet by addressing the issue that has plagued us from the beginning: the separation of church and state. Today, there are still people who use religion as a reason for promoting laws, especially laws that deny or restrict the rights of others. We must always remember the words of those who founded this country and oppose the influence or religion on politics whenever it rears its head.

And here without anger or resentment I bid you farewell. Sincerely wishing, that as men and christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, MAY BE DISAVOWED AND REPROBATED BY EVERY INHABITANT OF AMERICA. (p 73)

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July, and help keep freedom and equality safe in this country.

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Reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” On My Way To A Demonstration

CivilDisobedienceWhen I was in college, one of my English professors commented that we study literature because it matters, that is makes a difference in the world. I firmly believe that to this day. So, as I was preparing to board a bus with 100 other protesters and travel four hours to Raleigh (the capital of North Carolina) to participate in the Moral Monday demonstrations, I thought about what I should read aboard the bus for inspiration. I decided upon Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. I could not have picked a more perfect book.

Although Thoreau wrote this in response to the slavery issue, his words are as powerful and relevant today as when they were written back in 1849. At one point I had to force myself to stop copying quotes from the book because there were just so many that struck me as important.

Thoreau asserts that the government is used by “comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool” to further their goals and agendas. I am in complete agreement. Anyone who follows politics knows how lobbyists and powerful donors sway the legislation that is enacted. And corporate influence is some of the most insidious, because, to quote Thoreau directly: “It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience.”

Thoreau alludes to the Declaration of Independence when he talks about the need to refuse and resist allegiance to a tyrannical government, but he also stresses that we should show opposition to an inefficient government, and personally, I feel that this is a major issue that we face today. Our government spends more time bickering and arguing about petty things that nothing of substance gets done, and when things do get done, it is only because of partisanship and not because of concern for what is best for the citizens.

All men recognize the right to revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

At one point, Thoreau lashes out against the apathy of citizens, who do nothing or very little to effect change in the country.

They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote…

Protest outside NC Legislature

Protest outside NC Legislature

Anyway, I was able to finish the book on the ride to the demonstration, which challenged the current administration’s legislation that is stripping the rights and benefits of many citizens across the state.  I could go into a lengthy discussion on everything that is going on, but I won’t. If you are interested, I encourage you to read more on your own. Here are a couple of articles that can get you started:

I’d like to close with another quote from Civil Disobedience, where Thoreau challenges us to improve upon our current system of government.

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

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