Flashback: "Walking with the Wind" review - May 1998


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Walking With the Wind by John Lewis

Review by Robert Nebel

(CNN) -- As a child, Georgia congressman John Lewis knew he was the "different seed" from the rest of his cotton farming family in 1940's Troy, Alabama. Like the orderly rows of cotton plants on the farm, Lewis felt his parents and siblings all too often "fell in line" and easily accepted the harsh Jim Crow segregation laws of the South. Even as a young boy, Lewis knew that he had to be the one to fall out of that orderly line and challenge the system -- a system that he felt kept those in his family and race from achieving their full potential.

Little did Lewis know that by being "the different seed" he would one day be at the forefront of changing America's attitude toward race relations. That theme plays throughout Lewis' autobiography, "Walking With The Wind".

Lewis starts out recounting a childhood filled with painful memories of separation, discrimination, degradation and isolation. Pages upon pages vividly describe separate facilities for African-Americans; violence against African-Americans; and southern legislators who were in cahoots with law enforcement officials who covered up countless wrongs against African-Americans.
Going against the advice of his parents, Lewis embarked on a journey of challenging Jim Crow laws and later, attitudes through non-violent protest. The peaceful protest ideas sprouted and came to fruition for Lewis when he was a student in Nashville during the 1950's. It was there where he applied the teachings of Ghandi and his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., to his life of non-violence including sit-ins and marches. It was only fitting that Lewis joined the civil rights movement soon after the Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that tore down the Jim Crow laws. Unfortunately, many Southern states refused to comply with this federal mandate. That was where Lewis' true work began -- by joining and later becoming chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

What sets "Walking With The Wind" apart from other civil rights stories is that it is not a rehash of the lives of the famous black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. This book brings the unsung heroes to the forefront of the Freedom Rides, Selma's Bloody Sunday, the 1963 March on Washington, and the voter registrations drives in Mississippi. Names such as Diane Nash of the SNCC, and Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, are just a few of the African-Americans who put their lives on the line to guarantee future generations of minorities basic human rights.

What happened behind the scenes at the SNCC and the movement is the heart and soul of the book. While the students struggled with police brutality from the likes of Bull Connor in Alabama, there were ideological struggles between Lewis and his opposite, Stokely Carmichael. While Lewis was steeped in non-violence, Carmichael stirred up aggressive passions among the members. It was that internal struggle that came to a head and split Lewis away from the group.

While the post-1968 years in Lewis' autobiography are at times depressing, Lewis optimistically reminds readers that it was the SNCC's work that paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voter's Rights Act. What is even more inspiring is Lewis' rise into the political arena.
It is truly amazing to read how Lewis came up through the ranks in city politics to his present position representing the fifth district in Georgia. Lewis still marches to his own beat as a legislator and is still a "different seed" in Congress. He opposed the Gulf War, welfare reform and the death penalty -- quite a split from the present administration.

"Walking With The Wind" should be an inspiration for any of today's youth who feel if society is short-changing them. The sit-ins, demonstrations and marches that Lewis participated in showed courage and honor that is absent in present times.

Robert Nebel is a video editor with CNN. He is also an Atlanta-based freelance writer specializing in feature articles, theater, film and book reviews.
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