Book review: March: Book Two

The struggle continues.

I could be talking about resistance to rights being rolled back now. Or the second book in the trilogy about John Lewis and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

As with Book One, March: Book Two recounts events in the civil rights movement against the backdrop of modern events. In Book One, a woman and two children visit John Lewis in his DC office, listening to stories from his childhood and about his involvement in the early movement. In Book Two, John Lewis is preparing to attend President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The contrast between welcoming the first African-American president and recounting stories of struggle to gain basic rights in the 1960s is stark.

Whereas Book One focused on the rise of nonviolent protest, the beginning of SNCC, and lunch counter sit-ins, Book Two focuses on the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington in 1963—the spot of the famous “I have a dream speech”.

The sit-ins didn’t end with lunch counters, but moved to fast food venues and cafeterias—and then to movie theatres. The second-class citizenship of African Americans had been so normalized that people didn’t seem to notice or question it. The protests brought the discrimination to the forefront. But those in power—in this case whites—do not give up their power voluntarily. Nonviolent protest was increasingly being met with violence.

In 1961, the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia outlawed segregated buses and bus terminals. Legal judgments are one thing. Reality can be quite another. The judgment had no real impact on the experience of African Americans.

Initially, the movement was split on what action to take. But ultimately, a contingent moved forward with plans to test the Supreme Court decision. Before embarking on what came to be called the Freedom Rides—bus rides from DC to New Orleans—James Farmer sent a letter to people who should be made aware of what was happening—President Kennedy, the Attorney General (Robert Kennedy), the head of the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover), the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the presidents of Greyhound and Trailways. The letter explained what would be happening and why.

Unsurprisingly, the Freedom Rides encountered problems—mobs angry that blacks would seek to exercise their rights to ride on buses and enjoy bus terminals, mobs angry that whites rode with blacks in solidarity. Busses were firebombed. Cops stepped aside, letting mobs savagely beat the riders—one man was beaten so severely that he suffered brain damage and was paralyzed for the rest of his life. Cops arrested blacks and whites for riding together—and then drove them across the border, dumping them in KKK country, knowing that they would likely be killed.

However, one officer was different. Floyd Mann, the director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, stopped the beatings at the Montgomery bus terminal. He stood up for the life and liberty of the Freedom Riders.

One quote in the book about the culture of violence in Alabama jumped out at me. Replace “Governor Patterson” and “Alabama” and Martin Luther King’s words could apply today. “Governor Patterson bears the ultimate responsibility for the hideous action in Alabama. His consistent preaching of defiance of the law, his vitriolic public pronouncements, and his irresponsible actions have created the atmosphere in which violence could thrive.” (March: Book Two, page 88)

Interestingly, Alabama and Mississippi were quite different in their racism. Unlike Alabama, which met the Freedom Riders with unbridled violence, Mississippi tried to hide open violence, using economic and political pressure to support segregation. The White Citizen’s Council was the “businessman’s KKK”, which reminded me of the KKK membership among the elites of Indianapolis, a northern city historically rife with racism, segregation, and the evils of both, during the early 20th century.

In Mississippi, the Freedom Riders were fined. If they didn’t pay the fine, they would spend 60 days in jail. They refused to pay. (After 40 days, someone—no names are given—posted bail for them.) Despite this, John Lewis missed his college graduation. He was busy fighting for social justice by being imprisoned for exercising his legal right to ride a bus.

The end result: The Justice Department petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for a ruling to enforce Boynton v Virginia.

March: Book Two shows reality from John Lewis’s perspective. Our liberal heroes sometimes are not quite so liberal or heroic as we believe from our modern-day perspective. Lewis shows us their clay feet. Martin Luther King would not ride with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi—he was on probation, which, as March: Book Two points out, were all of the Freedom Riders.

Bobby Kennedy is not quite the big supporter of the little guy that he is portrayed in modern myth. He had no patience with the movement and demanded that they stop protesting. Bobby Kennedy then suggested that the movement focus on voter registration rather than actions or protests, which the civil rights movement had historical done. Martin Luther King endorsed this shift in focus. SNCC itself was divided into two wings: direct actions and voter registration.

The movement had its share of disappointments too. Jim Farmer backed out of the Freedom Rides. Stokely Carmichael didn’t believe in nonviolence; he would use it as a tactic but not as a philosophy that motivated all he did.

Regardless of the change of focus from protests to voter registration, the violence continued. In Liberty, MI, Herbert Lee, a farmer who helped with voter registration, was killed. His murderer, E.H. Hurst (a state representative no less!) was found not guilty. The Birmingham march resulted in 1,000 arrests, King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and promises for desegregation and fair housing practices. Medgar Evers was killed. Three hundred US Marshals were injured while protecting James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi.

SNCC was changing. Its goal shifted from integration to fair employment practices. Nonviolence was no longer the normal practice. This turning away from nonviolence violated the early spirit of the movement and its members—and tore at John Lewis’s heart. In 1963, he became chairman of SNCC and moved to Atlanta.

This was also the year of what would become the famous March on Washington. Officially SNCC did not support the march or the civil rights bill. (The bill would limit voting to people with 6th grade education or greater. SNCC’s position was that the only limit should be age and residence.) But John was invited to speak, and became one of what was known as the Big Six—six important members in the civil rights movement who organized the March on Washington.

Lewis was by far the youngest, and the most outspoken. His proposed speech was controversial—many other members in the movement were upset by some of the things that he proposed to say. March: Book Two describes this situation—and how the march ultimately got away from the organizers and took on a life of its own. The book covers what was taken out and what was left in Lewis’s speech…and includes an original draft of the speech.

Like its predecessor, March: Book Two illuminates the story through the powerful interplay of words and images. The story educates and informs about events that occurred in the not too distant past…and provides fodder for reflection in our current times. For John Lewis, it is not whether to struggle or how to struggle. For John Lewis, nonviolent struggle must continue to protect the rights of everyone.

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