Reading for Resistance: What I Learned from ‘March’

Rep. John Lewis’s memoir of the Civil Rights movement is not ancient history. It’s the guidebook we need today.

I keep coming back to March.

It’s not something I thought would happen. It’s a good book, true, but now more than ever, it’s a necessary book.

It should not be necessary. We were supposed to be reading March, Rep. John Lewis’s memoir of the Civil Rights movement, as history. The final volume ends on a triumphant note, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When we closed the book, we were supposed to be closing the book on the terrible history of Jim Crow in America.

Except we haven’t. Before Lewis and his co-authors, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, were even finished with the third volume, the Supreme Court rolled back the protections of the Voting Rights Act. In preparation for the 2016 election, many states closed down registration sites, purged the voter rolls, restricted polling places and hours, and in the case of the North Carolina Republicans, actually sent out a press release bragging about suppressing black votes.

Yesterday we saw the stoking of racial resentments come to a head in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating with an attack that left a woman dead.

I commented two years ago that March was more than just a history book, it was a guidebook. I had no idea back then how true that would be. Since the election, I have joined a group of ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving civil rights for all people and not rolling back the gains of the last 50 years. Most of us don’t have any experience with protests, demonstrations, or political activism, but now, suddenly, it has become necessary to do these things. As I move into this strange new world, March has been a valuable guide. And since a rally similar to the Charlottesville one is apparently coming to Boston next weekend, I’ll be reading it again.

Here are some of the things I have learned:

Prepare, plan, rehearse

When Lewis and his fellow students decided to desegregate the Nashville lunch counters, they didn’t just go into a luncheonette and sit down. They thought it through beforehand. They rehearsed. They did role-playing, yelling at one another, even assaulting one another, so they would be able to face the inevitable attacks without resorting to violence.

Book Two tells the story of the Freedom Riders, who were desegregating the interstate buses. At the time, black and white passengers were required to sit in different sections. The Freedom Riders were black and white passengers who rode together—but there were always some riders who complied with the law, so they could slip out and notify the others in case the riders were arrested or got into other trouble.

The lesson here: Before you hit the streets, think through what you are doing and what may happen: Think about transportation, timing, communication, what you may need—Lewis brought an apple, an orange, a book, and a toothbrush when he marched on Selma, assuming he would be arrested. And like the Freedom Riders, have someone ready just in case to bail you out if things go wrong.

Know what you want

It’s not enough to simply say you want justice—you have to articulate what justice will look like. Lewis and the other Civil Rights leaders worked on very specific things: Desegregating the lunch counters, desegregating the buses, and ultimately, ensuring that all African Americans could exercise their right to vote. All these things were steps along the way to the larger goal of bringing about equality for all people.

Marches and demonstrations send an important signal that things are not OK, but activism doesn’t end when the march is over. Rather, we must continuously identify and work toward specific goals, keeping in mind that local actions can resonate at the national level. Desegregating the Nashville lunch counters was a strictly local issue, but it mirrored actions that were happening all over the country and led to a change in attitudes.

Accept that disagreements will happen

March is a story of individuals and of organizations that evolved, cooperated, and split over the years. Lewis shows people of good will having uncomfortable discussions about important issues, such as whether to include white people in the movement and whether to continue to espouse nonviolence. Sometimes bitter disagreements split the movement. There is no simple solution to the problem except to acknowledge that disagreements are inevitable when people feel strongly about something, and organizations and leaders should be prepared for this and have mechanisms for discussion and dissent. And, as he did, continue to push forward.

Don’t be goaded into violence

Lewis is clear about his commitment to nonviolence. It sometimes put him at odds with his peers, but it was one of the keys to the movement’s success. Even when it seems justified in the moment, violence makes you the bad guy.

Nonviolence isn’t passive. It’s active. The members of the Civil Rights movement prepared for nonviolence. They rehearsed being yelled at, spat on, and even struck. It’s hard to quell the impulse to hit back, but when you are fighting the dominant power, any violent act, even one that is provoked, can and will be used against you. What’s more, isolated acts by outsiders can destroy your message—the media will overlook a million peaceful protestors to focus on three guys breaking windows, and it won’t take long for those on the other side to start describing it as a riot.

Keep going even when things seem hopeless

In March, Lewis experienced moments of deep despair when it seemed that everything was going to fail. But we know the end of the story, and despite the events of the past year, we are still far ahead of where we were 50 years ago.

As bad as things looked yesterday, protests and political action have been effective in not only pushing back on specific items, such as the immigration ban and the destruction of the health care act, but also changing the tone of the national dialogue.

It’s also important to make a solid commitment to a cause. Marching for a day feels great, but it takes a sustained effort at the local, state, and national levels to bring about real change. That means voting in every election, supporting candidates who share your vision and values, donating whatever you can to advocacy groups, and working for social justice in whatever way you are able. It’s a long game.

Have faith in the decency of ordinary people

March is an incredibly violent graphic novel, but the violence is limited to a relatively small group of people. They fill the panels and they loom large during the dramatic scenes, but they are vastly outnumbered when the country is taken as a whole. When Fannie Lou Hamer told her story of being savagely beaten after she tried to register to vote, the nation was outraged. The violence inflicted upon the Selma marchers turned the tide of public opinion in their favor. The bullies were powerful in their own small domain, but when the country as a whole saw what was going on, the tide was turned and civil rights became a national issue.

That is happening now as well. Since Election Day, millions of people have taken to the streets to protest the discriminatory executive order on immigration, the erosion of women’s rights, and the blatant disregard for the environment that this administration is propagating. Anywhere the white supremacists march, they will be outnumbered by counter-protestors. People are calling their elected officials in unprecedented numbers. A whole new crop of progressive candidates is preparing to run for office for the first time. And much of this action is based not on their own self interest but on concern for the rights of all people, regardless of skin color, religion, immigration status, or who they love.

The night before the last election, I had the honor of meeting Dr. Harold May, one of the Tuskegee Airmen. He spoke movingly of his experiences, and he finished with the words “Always act as if we are all members of the same family—because we are.”

I don’t want to live in a society that treats some people as less—that is actively hostile to some people—because of who they are. It doesn’t matter whether I’m the target of that or not. If someone else is hurt, I am hurt. That’s what true patriotism is. That’s what I’m going to be fighting for. And thanks to March, I’ll be fighting smarter.

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