Leonard Quart: America needs another John Lewis


NEW YORK >> John Lewis, The 76-year-old Democratic congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon, has usually been on the side of the angels when it comes to social commitment. He has been called one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced and has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the beloved community" in America.

In addition, he most recently led a stirring, symbolic day-long sit-in over continuing Republican opposition to gun control in Congress following the Orlando massacre.

Lewis has also co-written a graphic trilogy, "March" (Top Shelf Productions), with Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell that has won a number of awards. The first book was published in 2013, and the final one this year.

Inspired by boycott

The trilogy takes us through Lewis' life from growing up in the 1940s on 110 acres of farmland in Pike County, Ala. to his speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, where he was the youngest speaker, and the last surviving one today. The trilogy penultimately depicts the final march from Selma to Montgomery, ending with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 being enacted into law.

As a young boy, Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott and the words of the Rev. King, which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, despite doubts about himself and his purpose, he made the decision to become a part of the civil rights movement. Eventually he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The story depicted in the trilogy has often been told before. But this cleanly written graphic novel has a vivid immediacy that captures the police brutality, beatings, imprisonment, and even murder that faced the courageous, disciplined non-violent protestors when they participated in lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides in the South. Throughout the trilogy, Lewis sustains a principled belief that "human dignity is the most important thing in my life," and a commitment to an open and integrated society where "love is its highest virtue."

Lewis does not shy away from depicting conflicts over tactics in the movement. The beginnings of his later break with the SNCC can be seen in his differences with Stokely Carmichael over the use of violence. This accessible trilogy is meant to provide students with necessary knowledge about the past, but even I who have indelible memories of those times, was stirred by seeing one of the most sublime moments of American history captured so richly.

Of course it's invidious to compare the civil rights movement of the 1960s with the street violence that recently occurred in Milwaukee. It began with the police shooting of an armed black man that led to 200 people gathering and two nights of protests and then rioting. On the first night six businesses were torched, police cars were smashed, and 17 people were arrested.

The protests lacked any semblance of organization and the rioting was self-destructive, though the rioters succeeded in making the country aware that Milwaukee is much more than beer, sports teams, and home of Harley-Davidsons. City Alderman Khalif Rainey stated in a CNN article; "This community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African-Americans in the entire country."

Milwaukee has lost many manufacturing jobs over the years, and it was the white suburbs that gained jobs in office parks, light manufacturing, and retail over that time. The rage towards those suburbs from some black inner city neighborhoods was clearly expressed by the dead man's sister, who encouraged the rioters to head to the suburbs where the white people live and "Take that anger to the suburbs, and burn it down."

By any measure African-Americans in Milwaukee inhabit a city that is the most racially segregated in the country, and where the educational disparities between blacks and whites, differences in unemployment and crime rates, and police brutality and lack of accountability make the Milwaukee alderman's statement a painfully accurate one.

No political link

Still, there is no John Lewis or Martin Luther King in Milwaukee or other roiling cities to shape that anger into a coherent political agenda. The activists of Black Lives Matter who have stepped into the political void may have energy and youth but failed to channel the rage on the Milwaukee streets toward political ends.

The civil rights movement had the advantage of a seasoned, well-educated, charismatic leadership and a close connection to black churches and to some portions of the Democratic Party. While Black Lives Matters is committed to a participatory democratic model, it places less emphasis on political and civil rights than on, "black humanity," focusing mainly on policing in black and brown communities and on dismantling mass incarceration. Consequently, Black Lives Matter operates more in the black power tradition than in the integrated, universal vision of the early civil rights movement.

I know we can't go back in time, and the problems black communities confront today are different in nature, but still I can't help wishing that some of John Lewis' nobility and moral vision touched some of the younger black leaders.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwit@aol.com


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