I love February.
Yesterday was my birthday and I got to spend it working at my town’s daily newspaper. Next week is my anniversary and my wife, Wendy, is coming down from Kansas City to spend the week in her soon-to-be hometown and escape from the winter storms she is enduring now.
Oh, yeah. Next week is our wedding anniversary, too.
And there is Black History Month. Which gives us a chance to reflect on the contributions of all people in our society and how many groups have had to overcome struggles and injustices to help make America stronger as a whole.
I don’t know if it is because it is Black History Month, but Friday night I found myself watching an episode of the PBS series American Experience that dealt with the abolition movement.
It was a powerful account of how that movement in the decades leading up to the Civil War grew and marshalled itself into a real force.
And it got me to wondering how such a basically good and moral nation could still be fighting a bitter fight for civil rights in the 1960s. It was if the progress in the preceding 100 years was almost too small to measure.
As a former college professor, I turn everything into a reading list. And for Black History Month, I am going to ask Wendy to bring me a couple of books that I have come to really miss and that I haven’t read in quite a while.
The first is “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” It is an autobiography by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) that is powerful and poignant.
Lewis was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and his book bears witness to the experiences that helped to forever change America.
Lewis was born in Troy, Ala., to sharecropper parents, but his future was to be much different than his beginings.
At a young age, he was already at the front of The Movement. In 1960, at the age of 20, Lewis joined the Freedom Riders. As one of the original 13 (and of the 13, seven were white) Freedom Riders, he was no stranger to the costs of seeking what so many already enjoyed simply by the good fortune of having been born white.
He was assaulted when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room and was hit in the head with a wooden create and left lying, bleeding and unconcious in a bus terminal.
Lewis was there for the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., and he suffered a fractured skull during a tear gas attack by Alabama state troopers.
In a 1998 C-Span Booknotes interview, Lewis said he had since spoken to the mayor of Selma in 1965, John Smitherman. And the time, Smitherman was mayor of a city that had only 2.1 percent of blacks that were of voting age registered to vote.
But three decades later, the former mayor was apologetic to Lewis.
“This mayor today has apologized and said he was on the wrong side.,” Lewis said in the interview. “He now considers many of us who were involved in the--in the movement during those days as his friends. And he’s saying now that if he were in the same position that we were in back in 1965, he would have been out there doing the same thing. He would have been out leading the march for the right to vote. He’s given me the key to the city of Selma and made me an honorary citizen of Selma. But back in 1965, he called me an outside agitator.”
And as chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Lewis address the same crowd at the 1963 March on Washington that heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I have a dream” speech.
One of my favorite stories is how the book got its title.
One evening when Lewis was very little, a powerful storm came up and began lifting corners of the tin-roof shack where he was living. He and his familly would walk from corner to corner of the little structure, using their collective wait to keep it from literally blowing away.
They would walk from corner to corner, literally walking with the wind.
Later in his life, Lewis would be walking into the wind with others of all backgrounds to try and bring justice to American society. Another portion of the interview has Lewis recalling how during a time of deep national racial division there was one segment of society that was very integrated.
“I used to think during those early years of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that the only real and true integration that existed in America at that time was within the movement itself,” he said. “It was the essence of what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the beloved community on interracial democracy.
We didn’t think about race — these were people, black and white, that were willing to put their bodies on the line and go to jail together. And, you know, some of the young people died together.”
Like the movement, Black History Month is a month for everyone.
I want my books back.
Thom Hanrahan is the editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sundays. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.