My students and I have been engaging in conversations about civil rights this summer.
It’s no coincidence that right now, during a wave of civil rights movements and a stronger push for equality, that all my students are African kids.
We’ve been reading a lot of books inspired by civil rights activists and leaders to guide our discussion. Several weeks ago, some of them and I read this one together – an illustrated graphic memoir about the early life of John Lewis.
This book left me in awe.
It’s set in Representative John Lewis’s office in Washington DC. It’s the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, and as Lewis meets a couple of kids. The boys are intrigued by his story, and Lewis shares his journey through flashbacks to his own childhood.
In these flashbacks, I learned of his earliest days in rural Alabama. I scoffed at the school situation he grew up in as a black boy, especially compared to white students.
I read about his first road trip to the north, and how strange he felt to have a white neighbor for a summer. I felt his hurt when his parents urged him to stay home, keep quiet, and not to cause a trouble.
I heard his retelling a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. that would set him on a life-changing trajectory to fight for civil rights. I read and really understood the challenges he was faced as a black man. I celebrated with him at the victories he and his colleagues made for equality.
As we read some of the injustices he faced, my kids asked – genuinely confused –
“What? Why? But that’s not fair.”
And how do you really answer when they ask why black kids couldn’t buy ice cream that was as good as the white kids’?
How do you explain to them why black schools were smaller and older, with broken playgrounds – if they were even lucky enough to have one in the first place? How do you tell them that black people weren’t treated fairly just because of the color of their skin?
It struck a chord in me because I learned that much of Senator Lewis’ activism was birthed in Nashville. It’s here, in my city, that he sparked a movement as a college student decades ago. He collaborated with other students to form the Nashville Student Movement, a battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins.
The book mentions roads and places, universities and landmarks, that I’ve been near my whole life. These places I’ve seen and where John Lewis participated in change all those years ago are one and the same. I marveled at the courage it took for people to stand up to make lasting change in our community.
It sounds crazy, but these little photo boxes and word bubbles shook me up.
John Lewis was on the front lines courageously facilitating change.
He played an integral part in changing my city for the better, and I had no clue until just a few weeks ago. I’m grateful for his courage to not only stand up decades ago, but to continue working for justice until his last day.
You probably know how this story turns out. Lewis’ work doesn’t stop in Nashville. It continues on, eventually leading him to seat in Congress.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this graphic novel was my first time really hearing the story of John Lewis.
Although I’m disappointed to only now begin to understand it, I’m grateful that his legacy will continue on. So this weekend, as we mourn the loss of this leader, I can’t help but whisper a word of thanks for his work.
He stood up in adversity. He cast vision when he was told it was impossible. He believed in the possibility that every person, regardless of skin color, can be equally loved and treated.
This particular page I photographed weeks ago is of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s address to Nashville. I’ve read this inspiring quote before and nearly bought the t-shirt to prove it. What I didn’t know prior to reading this story is that this “great movement” that took place in the community was worked by John Lewis. This was the movement that Dr. King drew inspiration from and had to see for himself.
This was a movement that changed Nashville forever. I’m forever grateful for it and for Senator John Lewis’ vision to lead.
I’m patiently waiting to pick up the next books in the series from the library. I’m learning a lot this summer. I hope you are too.