Reading recommendations for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Two years ago, I blogged one of my favorite songs in honor of the day. Lately, I don’t feel like singing. Since this weekend, I’ve been thinking we’ve been forgetting our history.
I am no fan of the idea that once someone does something praiseworthy, they can never be criticized after that. I’ve been critical of things that Rep. John Lewis has said and done on the national political scene. I have qualms about saying that Donald Trump is “not my president” (although my reservations are probably too complicated to be appropriate for airing this space).
However, anyone who calls John Lewis “all talk” badly needs a history lesson. This son of sharecroppers (he has nine siblings) who practiced public speaking by preaching to his chickens as a child got himself an education (running away from the fields sometimes to go to school instead) and joined the sit-in movements in the 1950s, getting arrested on behalf of his cause, inaugurating the Freedom Rides, organizing the March on Washington. In the universe that we used to live in until the last few months, Lewis was the personification of what you’d want a political leader to be, no matter your politics. He exemplifies the idea that with the support of a community, people can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and change the world.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with his life story and would like an easy introduction to it, this last fall, the final volume in the graphic novel trilogy, March, appeared. It’s a memoir of Lewis’ participation in the U.S. civil rights movement. I’ve gotten a lot from reading these (it seems wrong, in this case, to say that I’ve enjoyed them). I learned a lot about Lewis and a few things about the movement that I didn’t know — and the drawings make clear just how much Lewis and people like him sacrificed to force our country to start to live up to its promise that “all men are created equal” and that “no State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The books have won numerous awards, have been on the national bestseller lists for months, and are written at a level appropriate for a beginning high school reader.
There are so many other books that I’d recommend: my standard recommendation is Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, a memoir of one of Lewis’ contemporaries, that gets clearly at conditions for African-Americans in Mississippi at that time. Or Carlotta Wall’s Lanier’s memoir of crossing the picket lines to attend high school at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, A Mighty Long Way. Or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which recounts how difficult things still are (he’s about my brother’s age). I just read Hidden Figures, the story of how African-American women math specialists aided in NASA’s effort to put men on the moon, and will be seeing the movie this week; again readers can see how hard these people worked to improve not only their own lives, but also those of others, and how many obstacles our society — we — put in their way, both in past and at present.
Today, I am thanking all of those people, including John Lewis, who definitely were not “all talk” in situations where it really counted.