Just a week ago, on Thursday, July 30, Rep. John Lewis’ funeral was held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. The congressmen and civil rights hero died on July 17 from pancreatic cancer. His passing and the recent focus on systemic racism and bigotry in our country, has made the 2017 One Book, One Bedford community-wide read of Lewis’ MARCH trilogy even more pertinent and meaningful.
Three events from the series of activities that year are particularly worth re-visiting. If you did not attend them, please consider watching the videos from those talks – they pose questions that we still wrestle with, and offer possible solutions that are more important now than ever.
Click each section header to view the full video presentation
Dr. Robert Parris Moses frames his remarks during The Citizen’s interview for the One Book, One Bedford series, around the preamble to the Constitution – We the People – and the notion of ‘constitutional personhood’.
What does it mean to be a citizen of this country (and not its states)? What is the reach of the preamble?
Dr. Moses gives a historical perspective of the fight, by African slaves, to change their constitutional status from that of constitutional property to constitutional people.
The 13th amendment to the constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude and the 14th amendment conferred equal protection under the law – for all citizens. This notion is central to the struggle for civil rights – that ‘We the People’ are all citizens of this country and, as such, are due the same rights and the same protections under the law regardless of race, gender, or any other aspect of identity.
Moses argues that might include undocumented persons as well since the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was in fact the first gathering of the undocumented in this country’s history. Truth.
It is this notion, of being a citizen of this country, that enabled civil rights leaders and activists to force the hand of the federal government to begin dismantling state systems of voter suppression and segregation. It is this notion that is fundamental to the passing of the Civil Rights Act. It is this notion that is central to understanding why Black Lives Matter.
Dr. Dan Breen presents the history of the Civil Rights movement starting with the founding of the NAACP in 1909 to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, through the stories of five individuals – Isaac Woodard, Harry Briggs, Marin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash, and Robert Parris Moses.
He explains how the drafting of Black men into the military to fight World War II results in the return of close to one million Black servicemen, many young and from the South, back to the US after the war.
They returned with a desire to see more action than rhetoric from their states and the federal government, and to then see the liberty, justice, and equality they fought for in Europe be a part of their own reality in this country.
Their service affords them the economic means to financially support the NAACP, resulting in increased power and influence for the organization. In each of the five stories, Dr. Breen highlights how the courage of these individuals, who put their lives on the line to fight for change, their stories, and the NAACP’s tireless efforts to seek justice changed the course of the civil rights movement.
That is the question Rev. Irene Monroe begins and ends her talk with.
She encourages attendees to unpack what it means to be white, to break down the hierarchy of white supremacy, and to understand what it means to be white. She discusses the intersectionality of oppressions(s) from her perspective as a gay Black woman, and the inextricable link between race and class as it plays out in systemic discrimination.
And she asks us to consider how we can speak up to demand justice, and why it is always important to do so even, and perhaps especially when the injustice does not directly impact our lives.
As we continue to grapple with effects of deep-rooted racism and bigotry in this country and ask ourselves what we can do to contribute to change, President Obama’s remarks from his eulogy at Rep. Lewis’ funeral seem most apropos, “…real courage comes….not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.”
Editor’s Note: A member of The Bedford Citizen’s board of directors, Sarita Pillai was among those who were integrally involved in arranging the programs for ‘One Book, One Bedford’ in 2017.
‘One Book, One Bedford ~ The MARCH Trilogy’ was presented with support from the Bedford Free Public Library, the Bedford School Department, the Bedford Cultural Council, and Bedford Television in the autumn of 2017.
On the day of his funeral, First Parish Unitarian Universalist honored Rep. Lewis with an informal bell ceremony. Click here to learn more.