Why do I see
A glimmer of peace,
And retreat as if afraid
Of the unknown?
Why do I see
Why do I see
A glimmer of peace,
And retreat as if afraid
Of the unknown?
The most profound description of grief that I have encountered occurs in the 2011 movie Rabbit Hole. Over the years, I’ve thought back to the dialogue between Becca and Nat, especially when I reach into my own metaphorical pocket of “grief”.
In Rabbit Hole, Becca loses her young son to a hit and run driver. The grief is unbearable. After packing up his belongings and storing them in the basement, she pauses. And then turns to her mother Nat to ask if the grief ever goes away. Her mother also lost a son, albeit an adult son, years before.
The exchange that follows describes how grief accompanies you through your life. Grief changes over time. You “heal”. You move on with life. You slowly forget it, until something reminds you of it.
Nat likens grief to a brick in your pocket. You always carry it around. But you forget that it is there until you reach into your pocket for some reason. And then you remember the brick—the grief. After the initial loss, the grief becomes bearable and even OK—the brick in your pocket reminds you of whatever it is that you lost. In a strange sort of way, the brick is a comfort.
BECCA: Does it ever go away?
BECCA: This feeling.
NAT: No. I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t. And that’s goin’ on 11 years.
It changes, though.
NAT: I don’t know. The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under, and carry around — like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh, right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda … not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is …
NAT: Fine … actually.
(Source of the transcript: New York Times)
Video clip of the scene in Rabbit Hole
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.
Get in the Way. That is John Lewis’s advice. The famous civil rights activist encourages others to get involved in order to change things. His entire life has been about getting in the way.
This documentary covers his activism, his foray into politics, his family—looking at different points throughout his life.
His six brothers and three sisters all seem to recount the same stories about him. He wanted to be a preacher and he loved the chickens he cared for. He would preach to the chickens, even baptize them, and, to the family’s amazement, they had funerals for chickens that died.
His parents raised him to treat others fairly and to be kind. And to stay out of trouble—the direct opposite of John’s modern advice of getting in the way. He went off to seminary and started getting in the way.
In 1957, he left for American Baptist College in Nashville, the first time he was in an integrated environment. There he met Jim Lawson at a nonviolence workshop and started his journey in nonviolent protests. After participating in protests, he described feeling free, as though he had crossed over. For him, “nonviolence is love in action.”
In 1960, the Supreme Court banned segregation on transportation, but the law was not enforced. John participated in the famous Freedom Rides, attempts to ride buses from DC to New Orleans. The rides ended in disaster. At one depot, a bus was met by a mob of hundreds who attacked and beat the riders. In 2009, one of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, apologized to John, an apology that John accepted.
John was a powerful force in the early years of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and went on to chair it from 1963 to 1966. Nonviolence was at the heart of all SNCC and John did. The documentary quotes lines from the SNCC Constitution: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overcomes injustice.” .
John was also one of the Big Six who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He coordinated efforts in 1964 to register voters in Mississippi. And in 1965 he joined—when SNCC wouldn’t—the march from Selma to Montgomery with King.
The documentary then shifts gears and focuses on Lewis’s role in politics. Active in community organizations, he was encouraged to run for office. John has continued to be active in fighting for civil rights and against discrimination in whatever form it takes. He has actively supported immigrants, LGBT rights, people with HIV/AIDS. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
He does not seem to lose hope but realize that the fight is ongoing. Getting in the way never ends. He spoke up when the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013. He spoke up when voting hours were reduced and voter ID requirements passed across the country, pointing out that they were aimed at suppressing the vote. He spoke up against efforts to limit or repeal gun control.
The documentary covers the highlights of John Lewis’s commitment towards securing people their rights and fair treatment. For a more in-depth look at his role in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, I highly recommend the recent movie Selma. For a look at his early life and the activism he took part at, check out the graphic novel trilogy March. Both will inspire you to get in the way.
Bless you, John Lewis, the conscience of the Congress. Thank you for the decades of service to your brothers and sisters of all persuasions. May you get in the way for many more decades.
Proust observes that facts will never dissuade or persuade someone if the facts contradict their beliefs—a point to ponder in discussions about climate change, politics, or really anything.
“Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.” ~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way