When I was in high school I had the opportunity to spend a week in Washington, DC as part of a program called Presidential Classroom. We toured the city, participated in workshops, and listened to speakers talk about different aspects of the government. It was a great week, intense and draining. It also was the source of a missed opportunity that I did not realize I had missed until years later, and did not have a chance to get over until this week.
One of the sessions that I had most anticipated was our visit to the floor of the House of Representatives, where we would meet with a member of the House. I was then, as I am now, a political junkie, so I was eager to hear something about how someone got elected to Congress and worked to pass laws. Instead, as I remember it, the speaker spent much of the time talking about his work in the civil rights movement. And as I remember it, 16-year-old, tired Dave tuned out a lot of the discussion. Plenty of people had worked in the civil rights movement, I thought. It was over 20 years in the past, I thought. It wasn’t relevant now, I thought.
If you want to direct a few choice words at 16-year-old me, go ahead. I’ve done the same. But by that point, my junior year of high school, I don’t remember doing much serious study of the civil rights movement. My American history classes tended to run out before getting to the late twentieth century, and rarely dug deeper than a few anecdotes about Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had never heard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and I had never heard of John Lewis, one of the six civil rights leaders to speak at the March on Washington.
That started to change when I was in graduate school. I had decided that I wanted to be a social studies teacher, and so I started taking graduate history courses so that I would have the depth of knowledge I needed. I started seeing references not just to Parks and King but to Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC. I was intrigued by the struggles within the movement, the constant tension of trying to figure out how hard to push, which tactics to use, which allies to accept. I decided to study the civil rights movement as a case study of democratic reform.
Although I focused on King and the SCLC, I found SNCC extremely compelling. Here was a group of student organizers committed to direct action, working with but sometimes at odds with the famous names and organizations I had learned as a kid. And one of the leaders of that organization was John Lewis. I honestly don’t remember when it clicked in my head. “Wait . . . this John Lewis . . . isn’t that the guy I saw in high school?” But shortly after it clicked I went to my bookcase and pulled out the book from the Presidential Classroom program where I took notes on each speaker. I found the page where I had notes on Rep. Lewis.
It was practically blank.
I have wanted to kick myself for my high school ignorance ever since. I have no idea what I think would have concretely changed if I had had a little more energy, a little more knowledge, a little more concentration. Lewis’ impact comes much more from the power of his example than that of his storytelling. But if I had really understood the importance and magnitude of Selma, if I had appreciated the sacrifice and commitment Lewis had shown for his ideals, if I had truly grasped how far our nation has had to travel on the road to civil rights and how much farther we still have to go, then that day in Washington could have been an opportunity to connect to that past beyond the pages of a book. It could have been an opportunity to say “Thank you.”
But because I didn’t know any better, I squandered that opportunity.
In its way, that missed opportunity has been a blessing. It’s helped remind me to listen more, to try to be aware of what I don’t know, and to think more deeply about how to do the work of building a more just society. It’s helped motivate me to make sure that my students hear a variety of voices and understand the workings of the American system so that they can leverage that system and make it better. It’s kept me humble and reminded me not to assume that I’ve got it all figured out.
It still bugged me.
And then last week my wife sent me a text that Lewis would visit Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. He and Andrew Aydin, one of his aides, have co-written a series of graphic novels called March, drawn by Nate Powell, about his work with the civil rights movement. The third and final volume comes out next month, but they wanted to launch it during the Democratic National Convention at Amalgam, which is owned by an African-American woman named Ariell Johnson. I had bought and read the first two volumes, with the third already pre-ordered. As I fumbled with my phone trying to get to the Eventbrite site to get tickets, Pattie told me she had gotten two, one for me and one for our daughter.
I started sobbing. Now, this is something that members of my family do at significant family occasions, Harry Potter movies, and random vistas, so you need to take that into account. But this really was overwhelming, because at that moment I had a chance to reach back to 16-year-old me and say, OK, I’m gonna take care of this.
We got to the store about an hour early on Wednesday, where around a dozen people who didn’t have tickets were waiting outside. (They did eventually get in.) My daughter and I were allowed in and we started browsing around. There was quite a crowd, some of whom appeared to be regular customers and others who seemed very unfamiliar with comics. I spent too long browsing and wound up buying my copy of Volume 3 as the signing line had already formed, so by the time Lewis and Aydin arrived I was toward the back. I listened as Lewis talked about the supply of peanuts and Coke products he had in his congressional office as a representative from Atlanta, and as Aydin talked about he hoped to use comics and sequential storytelling to help educate today’s kids about the civil rights movement and social justice.
And then we reached the front of the line. We handed our books over to be signed and shook the authors’ hands. I said, “Thank you, Congressman,” and then my daughter and I had our picture taken with the authors.
We all build stories to tell ourselves who we are; we take moments and magnify their importance because of what they say to us or about us. Out of those individual stories we build the story of our society. I feel grateful today that a week that has featured so many amazing moments for our national story gave me a chance to recast one of the moments of mine.