The following guest post is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools librarian and the 2013-2015 Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.
August 28, 2013, was my third day as Teacher in Residence. The day was also the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. U.S. Representative John Lewis spoke in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress to open the Library’s exhibition A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Dignitaries and Library staff sat in rows on the marble floor while additional staff stood lining the edges of the crowd and the stairs. The atmosphere was alive in anticipation of hearing a hero of the Civil Rights movement speak in person.
As I listened, I considered the life Rep. Lewis had led. On August 28, 1963, when he spoke at the March, he was 23 years old. He worked for the rights of his fellow humans across the nation for decades before being elected to Congress in 1986. History stood in front of me, in the shape of a leader who had chosen a path and never wavered in his pursuit of equality despite violence and opposition at every turn. Now he was the only person still living to have spoken at that event.
Three days later, I was doing my grocery shopping and heard a buzz in the produce section. I looked up to see Rep. Lewis with a basket over his arm, greeting people who approached to thank him. Others whispered, “Who is that?” to fellow shoppers while glancing over to see what was happening. This inspirational man was in the community.
When I told this story to colleagues, they joked that Rep. Lewis and I must have a connection, so I sought a meeting with this venerable man. On January 14, 2014, I was invited to the his office in the Cannon House Office Building. I took along two books I was hoping to have signed: my copy of his autobiography Walking in the Wind, which I had marked to remember things I wanted to ask about if offered the opportunity, and a copy of his graphic novel memoir March for a colleague’s daughter. Nervous, but exhilarated, I hoped to speak to the Congressman and his aide and co-author Andrew Aydin about writing for the Library’s education blog about his experiences as a way to help teachers bring his work to their students.
As the picture illustrates, I was invited into his office where the images on the wall showing his work across the decades reinforced for me why Rep. Lewis is a national hero. Everything about the experience is etched in my mind and heart.
During this time of protests and civil action in the United States there are a number of ways to introduce students to the work of Rep. John Lewis and others through the Library’s resources:
- If you read one or more of the volumes in the March trilogy with students, consider supplementing your reading by showing videos in which Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin discuss the books. Ask students in what ways hearing from the authors affects their enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of the books.
- In this National Book Festival video, Lewis discusses Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, published in 2012. Watch the video with students as a way to spark conversation about how they can emulate Lewis by causing some “good trouble” in working for change.
- Encourage students to explore the online resources from the exhibition A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington Ask them to choose one item from the exhibition with which they feel a connection. Use an online tool that allows students to link to the items they have chosen and explain the reason they chose it. This will create a mini-exhibition for each of your classes that can be shared with the school community.
In losing Rep. Lewis, we have lost a man whose life’s work was to defeat injustice across our nation. By talking about him and his work with young people, we can keep alive the spirit of compassion and non-violence he espoused.