John Lewis’s funeral and the civil rights novel dedicated to him
I was just finishing John Lewis’s three-book graphic memoir March when on July 17th John Lewis died. The representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District (Atlanta; ours) for 33 years was expected to die of pancreatic cancer but he had also just been elected to a 16th term starting in January 2021 and so the timetable was unclear. Memorials sprung up instantly on our street, made out of still warm election signs. One was draped in black tulle with sunflower vase and flag offerings. Another featured a metal rooster, referencing the chickens Lewis would preach to growing up in Troy, Alabama.
Reading March prepared me for Rev. James Lawson who, among many, eulogized Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30. Book 1 champions Lawson, former director of the Congress of Racial Equality and leader of the first workshop on nonviolence that John Lewis took in Nashville, TN, in 1958. Lewis impressed on the reader the depth of the non-violence philosophy and the rigor of its practice, with students taking turns trying to “break” each other into violence and steadfastly resisting. The training prepared them to face violence without returning it when forcing desegregation of lunch counters, fast food restaurants, cafeterias, and bus lines throughout the south. It prepared Lewis ultimately for Bloody Sunday in 1965, when he and Hosea Williams led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, towards Montgomery demanding the legal right for black people to vote without obstruction and Lewis, beaten, nearly became one of the casualties on the way to the Voting Rights Act.
“John Lewis called what we did between 1953 and 1973 the Non-Violent Movement of America – not the CRM [Civil Rights Movement]. I think we need to get the story straight because words are powerful. History must be written in such a fashion that it lifts up truly the spirit of the John Lewises of the world.” – James Lawson, eulogizing John Lewis
However personal Lewis’s funeral was, it was also, from its beginning to its culmination with President Obama’s impassioned address, also a plea, alluding to those who died to win the vote in the 50s and 60s, to use the vote in the 2020 national election, the vote being the ultimate non-violent action. As reported by the Pew Research Center, the vote was underused in the last election.
Registering people to vote was also what Meridian did – the main character of Alice Walker’s 1979 novel of the same name which Walker dedicated to “John Lewis the unsung” years before he was first elected to Congress. Meridian is about a young woman finding her way in the Movement in the period after Lewis stepped down as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, after alternative philosophies of violence entered the mix, and after a number of its leaders were killed. Much of the novel is set in Atlanta, where Meridian goes to college, devoting herself to marches for justice and voter registration drives across the south. Some of the best chapters near the end are vignettes of Meridian and her companion Truman interceding in the lives of hard-to-reach black folks to registered them to vote; nothing is straightforward when poverty and sickness are in the way.
Walker’s text leaps off the page, fresh and bright, despite being published 41 years ago. Meridian herself moves with the fits and starts of a young determined person, charging forward and then collapsing (epilepsy?), asking questions about how much she can give and if what she can give is enough. The pressure to embrace violence comes up a lot: “Is there no place in a revolution for a person who cannot kill?” she asks. Truman turns cynical in the chapter “Questions,” questioning what is left of the Movement: “The leaders were killed, the restless young were bought off with anti-poverty jobs, and the clothing styles of the poor were copied by Seventh Avenue. And you know how many middle-class white girls from Brooklyn started wearing kinky hair.” Meridian, in contrast, is not cynical. She keeps moving to apply pressure for change, even if she doesn’t have all the answers.
This sound clip from the chapter “Camara” read by Atlanta actor and edutainer Charlotte Ford of Charly Ford Entertains, highlights Meridian’s tortuous perseverance:
The novel explores the theme of social justice as fashion, particularly directed at white sympathizers and especially the character Lynne Rabinowitz. Lynne is a white northerner journeying south to join the Movement, romanticizing it: “To Lynne, the black people of the South were Art.” Lynne and Truman take up, marry, have a child, deteriorate, all the while intersecting Meridian’s life, circling around her, trying to draw her into their dramas and provoke jealousies, but this plot seems there to highlight Meridian’s contrasting focus. This kind of distraction fails to break her, and she marches on.
As a white person, it is interesting to read about Lynne’s descent from middle class suburbia to welfare poverty and exile, deeper into the raw and real (which she doesn’t renounce), becoming pathetic and ugly. It raises questions about white participation in the ongoing march for social justice and what real risks one is willing to take. To what degree is marching fashion and to what degree is it backed by staying power?
I ponder this because of a cherished photo of John Lewis and my husband on the day of the 2017 solar eclipse. Lewis was free with photos, happy to oblige with his staff. And now is a good time to ask: What exactly does this photo represent? Is it fashion, a wish to be seen as being on the right side of history? Or is it a display of a deeper commitment as an ally? John Lewis was an accessible entry point, perhaps offering white people a means to acknowledge societal guilt and release some of it, or to diffuse racial tension that so often marks our lives here.
But I think it was something deeper, having myself encountered John Lewis on a path once and experiencing the thing about him that people wanted to touch. Here was a person who had done the unthinkable, moved into violence without reacting, with lifelong damage to his body, persisting over decades of public service to speak out and push for change. Wanting to touch him could have been a primitive attempt to become infected with some bit of that same courage, hoping to have it pass from his being into ours. With the tangible being of John Lewis gone, we have to do it the harder way ourselves.
So I pledge to serve at least one get-out-the-vote phone shift (and I hope many more) for the coming national election, highlighting the absentee voter process as a safe option during the pandemic. Although applications were mailed automatically during the Georgia primary election, making it very confusing, this will not be the case again unless you’re age 65 years or older. I’m looking forward to my training to find out all the nuances of application and vote casting. Remember the requirement in the Georgia primary to place the absentee ballot inside the “inner envelope,” the one that did not exist? (yes, it was supposed to be wrapped in that folded piece of paper, which you probably threw away, instead). Remember voters purged from the rolls when signatures didn’t match their IDs? I’ve learned since that your driver’s license signature is the key to that match. I’ve learned that you can check your voter status, ensuring that you are still active, and apply for an absentee ballot through Georgia My Voter. Through this site you can also monitor potential irregularities. Ignore any information on the Internet that tells you it’s too late to request the absentee ballot. March on.