Stoking the Embers of the Long, Hot Summers

By Christian Davenport


Lewis, John and Andrew Aydin. 2013. March: Book One. 1st edition. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.


About fifty years ago, the United States of America was set ablaze with a series of riots/disturbances/rebellions/incidents of civil unrest/acts of freedom. These events are significant in US history because they shifted much political thinking of radicals to the left (i.e., advocating self-determination, statehood, socialism and reparations) while moving political authorities to the right (i.e., greater restriction on civil liberties, militarization of responses and diminished accommodation), they shifted political tactics of challengers as well as authorities to greater levels of aggression (i.e., armed self defense for the former and “law and order” measures for the latter), they led to the creation of a series of above-ground challenging institutions that were politically more radical than many before them (e.g., the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Africa, the Young Lords) as well as the increased support of a series of below-ground, covert police institutions (e.g., Red Squads) and they also led to the rise of some of the most intellectually creative/radical/productive/influential individuals in American history that you probably have never heard speak or read including Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Toure, Imari Obadele and José (Cha-Cha) Jiménez.

The anniversaries are upon us. Sunday (June 12th) marks the 50th anniversary of the “Division Street Riot” which involved the police shooting of a Puerto Rican youth in Chicago. Unlike other shootings of minority youth, this one was followed by hostile police–civilian interactions in the streets for several days and in the aftermath there were extensive discussions about what had happened, the creation of diverse civil society organizations (e.g., the Latin American Defense Organization) as well as the creation of some criminal/socio-political institutions (e.g., The Young Lords) – sound familiar. The 50th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion/riot is July 23, 2017. Initiated by a police raid of a social club/speakeasy, which followed an increasingly hostile actions of the police directed against the African American community, the initial small scuffle turned into one of the largest, most violent and costly contentious events in US history. The exchange led to the creation of one of the more radical but largely neglected radical organizations in US history: the Republic of New Africa – a group of black nationalists from all over the country who decided that they had been subject to enough of American inequality, hostility, violence as well as aggression and that they should create their own nation state – in the US and on their dime.

What the heck was going on back then and how should we frame our reflections next year as we look back? My recommended reading for the summer sets this up well. The recommendation might seem a bit odd for an academic blog but I suggest reading all three of the graphic novels “March” by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Books 1 and 2 are out already whereas Book 3 is out in August, just in time. This riveting work lays out the horrors of the period before the civil rights movement (i.e., the everyday experience with discrimination and inequality). It reveals the beginnings of resistance, not from the perspective of the more traditionally discussed and older Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and Roy Wilkins but viewed through the eyes of a regular(ish) teenager who quickly rose to crucial organizer and leader (i.e.. Lewis). The initial “outsider” status of Lewis provides an amazing perch from which to view the discussions, actions and institutional creations of the time. We literally get to sit as a fly on the wall during some of the most famous but least well understood moments in US history. The pages of the graphic novel give us access to the daily experiences of as well as the personal interactions among those who lived it but in something different from a documentary which moves by at a particular pace and in something different from a history text which relies upon simply works to provoke/evoke.

What took place behind and under the “March on Washington”? Did everyone agree with Martin Luther King as the “leader” of the civil rights movement? Who disagreed with him and why? Exactly how did the civil rights movement work? What did they do on the average day? How did the civil rights participants prepare to be spat on by racists? Was everyone down with the training? Who left? Who joined? It’s all in there, brilliantly drawn and written – the combination achieving something that neither could alone.   If you have limited understanding of the civil rights movement or think that you might actually know something about it, the graphic novels are worth the read. The format reads like part documentary, part painting, part cartoon, part political manifesto – its marvel meets Marx but the (largely) black version.

Now, this said, the graphic novel leads up to but does not fully resolve the issue of explaining the turn away from the civil rights movement, the wave of rebellions/riots/disturbances and turn to black nationalism but the parts are there. I will need to see Book 3 to get a better sense of how Lewis and company end their trilogy but the discrimination, the anti-black violence, the conflicts within the civil rights movement that moderated the message they put forward and hindered its ability to resolve the initial problems of interest are there – page after page. And, it is in these limitations (hidden in between the lines as it were) that one comes to understand the “Long, Hot Summers” of the mid to late 1960s. It is useful to keep this context in mind because while the Lewis and civil rights movement stories are in many ways positive (e.g., they get recognition for individuals and causes, as well as important legislation), what follows them signals their incomplete nature. What follows the civil rights movement reveals the limitation of viewing social change in a particular way that seeks to find a simple solution to incredibly complex problems. I do not mean to diss Congressman Lewis. Indeed, I emerge from Books 1 and 2 not only re-energized about furthering investigating the civil rights movement but I emerge re-energized about how graphic novels might assist in reaching the youth that increasingly seem less and less interested with staid formats.

Not into graphic novels? Minimize this screen immediately, go to Amazon and click.

You will be. Better than that: after you read it, you will try to find some ways to use graphic novels in your classes and as gifts (for others; you just got one).

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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