Thanks to the first-ever March on Washington Film Festival last month, I took part in an extraordinary event. Watching “March to Justice,” Kerry Kennedy’s moving documentary about her family’s ride through Alabama with Rep. John Lewis as their guide through the pivotal territory and events of this nation’s civil rights history, was one thing. Sitting next to Lewis during the screening was a powerful experience.
I won’t soon forget Lewis’s reaction to Kennedy’s 60-minute trip down memory lane with its old footage and present-day remembrances. But the question-and-answer session with him and Sonnie Hereford IV before and after the screening was quite special.
The July event came nine days after George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, was acquitted of second-degree murder. That verdict and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act the month before left Americans, African Americans in particular, bewildered. “There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt in America,” Lewis said in an interview with the New York Times this month. The pain and hurt were palpable during the Q&A after the screening.
Nicol Turner-Lee is the vice president and chief research and policy officer at the Minority Media and Telecom Council (MMTC) with two young children. She was moved by an 8-year-old in the film who said, “We march for freedom,” and lamented the loss of such noble purpose exhibited by Lewis and Sonnie Hereford IV, who was the first black student to integrate the Alabama public schools in 1963.
[O]ur people are angry. We’re angry. We’re hurt. We’re disappointed. We are feeling powerless. And part of this, you look at this 8-year-old child who said, “We march for freedom.” I can’t even imagine my 7- or my 11-year-old saying, “C’mon, let’s march,” because we can’t understand that.
We were the beneficiaries of what you all fought for and now we’re standing back. We’re so angry that we don’t know how to mobilize to actually change the ecosystem of our justice. We can only react to certain situations. You know what I mean? What did you all have? What happened then that we are not seeing recreated outside of the great legendary leaders like yourselves who are taking that anger, that disempowerment, disenfranchisement and saying, “We shall not be moved”?
Lewis’s response about what motivated them then holds lessons for us today.
First of all, I think people should understand that we were just ordinary men and women. We were greatly influenced by what we read about, what we saw. Growing up in rural Alabama 30 miles from Montgomery, I didn’t like those signs that I saw. I didn’t like seeing the signs that said, “white only,” “colored only”….
We were taught…to have a sense of righteous indignation. I don’t like it and I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m going to do something about it. Dr. King said that it’s better to die a physical death than to die a psychological death. The first time I was arrested on Feb. 27, 1960, for sitting in, I was charged for disorderly conduct. I was being so orderly, so polite. Just looking straight ahead. But after I was arrested, I felt free. I felt liberated. And it made me more determined to do whatever I could and I vowed to find a way to end segregation.
I go back [to Selma] because there are still other fights to be made. As I say, our struggle is not a struggle that lasts one day or one week or one month or one year or one lifetime. But it just goes on. So, when people ask, “Why do you fight for this?”…. It’s the right thing to do.
“Certainly today there are a lot of things to fight for,” Hereford told Turner-Lee. “But it’s very different because today it’s an incident once in a while that affects a few people directly. Back then, it was every day of your life and it affected everybody of your race. And so I think the indignation was much greater when he started than it is today.”
Lewis added: “I feel like that we’re too quiet. That we’re just too quiet. We’re almost resigned, and I think we need to speak up and speak out and just make some noise.”
Gavin Logan is more than two generations removed from those who gathered for the March on Washington 50 years ago on Wednesday. And that has left the 28-year-old assistant attorney general for the District of Columbia feeling lost. Twice his voice cracked with emotion as he asked for guidance.
LOGAN: You know, I hear the stories, the trials and tribulations that gentlemen like yourselves went through, gentlemen like my father and I think of my generation. And I often feel forgotten because we talk about how far we’ve come. … What I’m asking for is what words of encouragement would you give someone like me? How would you advise me to go on?
You know, a lot of people in my age group are hesitant to say it’s better. But we view it as different. There’s a saying, “They took the shackles off our wrists and put them on our brain.” … I know from talking to a lot of folks, a lot of us feel we’re dying that psychological death.
So, I guess what I’m asking is if there are any words of encouragement for me so I can pass them along to my peers because a lot of us are thirsty to make a difference. We see that something needs to be done, but we feel just almost helpless. We don’t know where to start. We don’t know where to look to. We don’t know how to visualize it, how to contextualize it, how to verbalize it.
LEWIS: I must tell you very frankly and candidly, I don’t think any of us have a blueprint. But one thing I think I can say is never, ever, ever give up. Never ever get lost in a sea of despair. You have to be hopeful. You have to be optimistic. … If you have faith and I’m not just talking religious faith, but if you have faith and you believe, then you press on. You press toward tomorrow. You have to actualize it. We have to make it real.
Before we went on any sit-in, before we went on any freedom ride, before we marched, we engaged in training, nonviolent workshop[s]. We would be beaten. We would be thrown in jail. But we’re not going to hate. We’re not going to become bitter. We’re not going to become hostile. We are going to keep our humanity. We’re going to sit in with dignity and pride. We’re going to stand up and we’re going to be strong. When you lose your sense of doubt and lose your sense of fear…..
Lewis’s response might seem Pollyannaish. But if the man who was beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday, who was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington and who remains this nation’s conscience on equality and fairness as a member of Congress can still muster the will to push America to fully realize the promise of the Constitution, then surely the beneficiaries of his struggle and sacrifice can. They have to have faith. They have to press on.
Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.