Rhetoric & Public Affairs 3.4 (2000) 679-681
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Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. By John Lewis with Michael D'Orso. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998; pp. 496. $26.00.
The latter years of Eisenhower's presidency form the starting point for John Lewis's Walking With the Wind. With the country involved in military and materialistic revival, Southern cities fought over the question of segregation. A battle that had been [End Page 679] fought with only modest success in the courts during the first half of the twentieth century moved to lunch counters, streets, buses, and bridges. At issue was what is an inalienable right and who is entitled to receive such rights. These questions remained unanswered despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, Truman's desegregation of the military, and even the landmark Brown decision of 1954. Against this backdrop, Lewis and a handful of Nashville-area college students volunteered to join the fight for freedom.
Few are those who remain from the hierarchy of America's contemporary civil rights movement. Among the survivors, John Lewis personifies more than anyone else the ideological heritage of Martin Luther King Jr. A disciple of King from his collegiate years, Lewis seldom strayed from his mentor's philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Even as a member of the House of Representatives, Lewis continues as a living emblem of the King years.
In his memoir, John Lewis draws from four decades of his own experiences to offer a personal view of the civil rights struggle. The third oldest of ten children, Lewis's parents were hard-working, Bible-believing sharecroppers. Though poor, the Lewis family was considered "good people," which meant they were willing to comply with Alabama's social customs. Lewis's parents preached that "decent black folks stayed out of trouble. It was that simple" (55). Lewis's life would change forever when he enrolled at Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary. With exposure to James Lawson, Jim Bevel, Diane Nash, and numerous other people who eventually would form the core of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis's quest for justice and equal access soon launched him to the forefront of the American civil rights movement. Although his parents felt disgraced by his expanding arrest record, Lewis maintained that he was on a course with destiny. Among his early stops was a meeting with his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights giant held Lewis spellbound for only minutes, but left an impact for life. Of that first encounter, Lewis was left not merely with a sense of King's presence, but the great concern King had for the lives of those he led. Lewis states, "I remember wondering at that moment--and this is something I would think about over the coming years--how heavy, how terrifying the responsibility must have felt to him for all the people he inspired to take up this struggle" (77).
The majority of Lewis's memoir features the rise and eventual disintegration of SNCC. Lewis serves as a custodian of history. Through his narration the reader attends SNCC's major movements, including the Nashville sit-ins of 1960, the freedom rides of 1961, the freedom summer campaign of 1964, and the Selma march of 1965. We observe SNCC's formative years, and how members constructed a network with numerous civil rights agencies including, most notably, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), [End Page 680] the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
Lewis reveals that the student movement was essentially rhetorical. We listen to private conversations between civil rights workers and the JFK and LBJ administrations. We observe the employment of protest strategies and witness counter-responses from control agencies. We receive a behind-the-scenes tour of protest movements in progress. In his account of the civil rights movement, Lewis pauses...