By Alona Elkayam
Real change begins 12 inches below the lip: What I learned from John Lewis
When John Lewis died last week, we didn’t post. Far From Timid stands for courage, but it also stands for truth. The truth was, we didn’t know enough about him to post something meaningful. So, I did my homework.
It’s 1961 and John Lewis rides a freedom bus from Washington DC heading south to New Orleans to test the 1960 US Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation in interstate public facilities (Boynton vs Virginia). He’s testing the law because the previous laws protecting blacks were not upheld. See, the Civil Rights movement had to fight for each manner with which blacks needed to be considered equal (voting, transportation, education, workplace) because one law wasn’t enough–not the Bible, Declaration of Independence, or even more specific, The Emancipation Proclamation. They had to get really specific. This makes me sick writing this. All these laws could not protect humanity for the equal rights of our black brothers and sisters.
1870: 15th Amendment (Voting)
1875 Civil Rights Act
1946: Morgan v Virginia (Segregation on buses)
1948: Executive order 9981: Segregation of Armed Forces
1954 Brown v Board of Education: Desegregation of schools
1960 Boynton vs Virginia (Segregation on buses, again)
1965 Civil Rights Act
John Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders step off the bus at Rock Hill, Alabama into a waiting room and were beaten by a mob. Still, he persists. Two weeks later, he joins another Freedom Ride bound for Mississippi, where he was imprisoned for 40 days. Still, he persists. The Freedom Riders drive to Birmingham where they are beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes, and stones. Again, they reorganize and ride to Montgomery “where they were met with more violence, and Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. "It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,”
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis leads over 600 marchers on a 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital in an effort to bring attention to the fact that only 1% of over 30% blacks in Selma were registered to vote despite the Voting Rights Act of 1957 and the 15th Amendment. When they reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning over the Alabama River, in front of them, “a wall of state troopers, wearing white helmets and slapping billy clubs in their hands, stretched across Route 80 at the base of the span. Behind them were deputies of county sheriff Jim Clark, some on horseback, and dozens of white spectators waving Confederate flags and giddily anticipating a showdown.”
When Lewis and the marchers reached the end of the bridge, the troopers tell them to go home. Marchers stand their ground as troopers knock them to the ground and hit them with, among other things, whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. John Lewis escaped back across the bridge and into Brown Chapel in Selma. His skull was fractured.
In 2013, the graphic novel, March was published. This book was written by John Lewis, along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. It illustrates the civil rights movement through the eyes of John Lewis. While the mantra of John Lewis’ legacy, “Good Trouble “was rippling through the hearts and minds of the world, a page from March was rippling through mine.
"The hardest part to learn–to truly understand, deep in your heart–was how to find love for your attacker. Do not let them shake your faith in nonviolence. Love them."
Those words cycled through my mind. His heart was unlimited. If we want systemic change, we need an unlimited heart. Not for this moment, for the rest of our lives. Black Lives Matter is everyone's plight. As a Jew, ignorance of the populace is a truth I am familiar with. If Instagram were around in the 1930s, let's just say the world was posting food porn and dreamy travel photos while my ancestors perished. Never again.
So, this past week, I went about releasing leftover grudges and sleights to make more room to truly be a part of the healing in our world. I reconnected with a close friend I’d had a falling out with this past March, and found closure, within, from an old wound of a relationship past.
Now, I’m ready to get in “good trouble.”
I hope this inspires many of us to internalize what is happening in our country and to take part.
Not for this moment, for the rest of our lives.