Lewis' 'Walking' -- a better America

July 19, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

"Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," by John Lewis, with Michael D'Orso. Simon & Schuster. 475 pages. $26.

John Lewis almost lost his family in early 1960. They couldn't understand the protests, the sit-ins, the arrests. "You went to school to get an education," his mother wrote. "You should just get out of this movement, just get out of that mess."

Thank God he did not listen to her. For if he had, he could not have written this beautifully restrained, yet powerful, memoir.

Bookstores are awash in memoirs. They're a current publishing craze. Everybody seems to be writing one, though many have nothing to say. "Walking With the Wind" won't end up in the remainder stack. It is uplifting, a must-read for anyone who wants an inside look to comprehend the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Lewis was everywhere during that era. From sit-ins to Freedom Rides; from the historic March on Washington in 1963 to the dramatic march for voting rights in Alabama in 1965, he could usually be found on the front lines.

He was not the movement's most charismatic leader, nor was he an orator whose eloquence could send chills down your spine. He was a steady soldier, determined, ready to take the blows to the head and body.

His memoir's success is evidence that a strong, meaningful story does not need beautiful language or literary style to do its job. It needs only a sure, confident hand. "Walking With the Wind" virtually tells itself.

Growing up, Lewis' family called him "preacher" for the sermons he gave in the chicken coop. They were hard-working people, sharecroppers in Pike County, Ala. Lewis ached to escape that life. He saw education as his way out.

By September 1957, he was in Nashville, Tenn., attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary. By 1960, he was integrating lunch counters. He gives those times a you-are-there immediacy. It is amazing how a handful of people who say, "Enough," can set in motion a movement that changes the social order.

It took only five years for the civil rights movement to go from sit-ins to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis doesn't stop with that victory. He carries the reader on through the power shift that ended with Stokely Carmichael replacing him as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was a time when, in his words, "the spirit of redemptive love was being pushed aside by a spirit of rage."

What followed were riots, assassinations, an escalating war and the decline of non-violence. By the end of 1968, the nation was spent. Lewis wisely continues his story.

His final three chapters follow him through the political establishment to his current position as congressman from Atlanta. He ends with what can best be called a sermon, a call to reclaim the values and teachings that inspired a movement.

It is enough to make the most cynical stop, if only for a moment, to reconsider Lewis and the lives of those to whom he has dedicated this heartfelt memoir, "the countless unsung heroes who cared deeply, sacrificed much, and fought hard for a better America."

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun. He has worked as assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has been writing for newspapers for 12 years. In addition to The Sun, he has worked at the Miami Herald and the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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