Walking where giants marched: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 16
Remembering John Lewis, a legend and an inspiration
John Lewis, the last of the great civil rights pioneers who walked with Martin Luther King Jr., died Friday. He leaves behind a legacy so vast that words like “hero” and “icon” aren’t enough to comprise what he did, but let’s try anyway.
If you’re not familiar with Lewis, he’s the guy on the right with the trench coat, facing down Alabama troopers in Selma with nothing more than a backpack and the truth:
He went from that bridge to Congress, where he served as a moral compass for a nation that always seems in dire need of one.
Lewis’s grace was boundless. There’s a story he told in his 2012 memoir “Across That Bridge” about a former Klansman who’d once been part of a mob that had beaten Lewis and another Freedom Rider in South Carolina half a century before. In 2009, the former Klansman sought out Lewis to ask forgiveness.
“Without a moment of hesitation, I looked back at him and said, ‘I accept your apology,’” Lewis wrote. “This was a great testament to the power of love to overcome hatred.” Me, I have trouble restraining myself from taking a pickaxe and trying to track down single-digit-follower chuds with names like @EagleFreedomWarrior1954, and here Lewis is giving comfort to ex-KKK members who beat him down.
He wasn’t a perfect man, but he got a whole lot closer than most.
A few years ago, I took my kids on a tour of important civil rights sites around the south. We hit the Montgomery bus station that’s now the site of the Freedom Rides Museum, the door on the campus of the University of Alabama where Gov. George Wallace stood to block integration, the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi that was the site of a National Guard gunfight over integration, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In so many of those places, you can look at archival photos of history unfolding, then turn your head and see the same surrounding buildings, the same railings, the same windows, the same bricks, still right there.
But none of those places hit me quite like Selma did.
I’ve seen photos of the Edmund Pettus Bridge — that arch straight out of the 1940s, site of one of the most crucial moments in the civil rights struggle — for as long as I can remember. You come around U.S. 80 heading west from Montgomery, through a stretch of gas stations and abandoned storefronts, and then, there it is, the highest point around, the tiny town of Selma just beyond.
We parked on the far side of the bridge — the area where state troopers lay in wait for John Lewis and the rest of the marchers on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. We walked toward the town of Selma, across the bridge, and then turned and looked back, to see the bridge from the marchers’ point of view. Here’s what it looks like:
What that picture doesn’t show you is just how high that bridge is over the Alabama River — a hundred feet at its apex. It also doesn’t show just how low those railings are to a grown person walking, or marching, alongside them.
You know what else you can’t see? Anything on the far side of the bridge. Lewis and the rest of the marchers walked up the bridge, and it wasn’t until they were beneath the arch that they could see Alabama state troopers, armed with night sticks and gas masks, ready and waiting to unleash hell.
They did, and the violence was shown on that night’s news across America. The police’s unrelenting show of force against nonviolent protesters was a turning point in making much of America — the part that wished all this civil rights business would just go away — realize just how deep the problems ran. Sometimes it takes seeing with your own eyes to realize that what you’ve believed may not be the whole truth … or anything close to it.
There’s nothing quite like seeing history with your own eyes, witnessing the places where the world pivoted and progressed in a different direction. Selma is one of those places. It’s transformative, and you can’t come away from there — seeing the wide expanse of the bridge, seeing the river below, imagining the massed forces just waiting to fracture skulls — without a newfound appreciation for how much Lewis and his compatriots gave to their cause, how much courage it took to step out on that bridge.
I keep making lists of all the places I want to see once All This Is Over, whenever that may be. If I could offer you a recommendation: get to Selma, or to Memphis, or to Birmingham, or any of the other hundreds of places where men and women took a stand for something more than just themselves. They blazed the trail; we owe it to them to trace their footsteps.
Street Art of the Week
If nothing else, at least Lewis lived long enough to receive the proper honors due a man of his stature. This six-story-high mural in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district is a fitting tribute, and on Saturday a steady stream of mourners came by to pay respects. They stood in respectful silence, leaving flowers and handwritten tributes. And almost every one vowed to keep making Lewis’s trademark “good trouble.”
Menu of the Week: Ann’s Snack Bar
After we visited the Lewis mural yesterday, we were jonesing for the best burger in Atlanta — the so-called “Ghetto Burger” at Ann’s Snack Bar on Memorial Drive. Sadly, it’s temporarily closed — at least, I hope it’s only temporary, because sweet heaven, the Ghetto Burger will make you see angels (and probably put you a good three months closer to meeting them, too).
For now, here’s a shot of the rules at the Snack Bar. For fun, try to reverse-engineer the story that led to each of these.
That’ll do it for this week. Wear a mask, wear a mask, and also — wear a mask. Peace!