“When we reached the crest of the bridge, I stopped dead still. ... There, facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood a seas of blue-helmeted Alabama State Troopers, line after line of them,” Lewis writes of that day in Selma, Ala., in his moving memoir, Walking With the Wind.
Beavan — the celebrated author of No Impact Man and star of a documentary by the same name — is too levelheaded to compare his struggles to those of Lewis.
Now a congressman from Georgia, Lewis was a college student and civil rights leader in the 1960s, and his courage in the face of threats and violence was legendary even then. His brand of sacrifice was quite different from the inconveniences Beavan and his family suffered during their yearlong struggle to spend an entire year without polluting the world. It was measured in head bashes and arrests.
After reaching the top of bridge and staring down at troopers — well-known for their brutality toward civil rights activists — Lewis led 600 marchers peacefully down the sidewalk toward the line of cops. He and other leaders then stopped. A captain gave the crowd two minutes to turn around, or else.
Lewis knelt and prayed. And very quickly the troopers set upon him and the other marchers with clubs, tear gas and horses.
“God, we’re being killed,” Lewis recalled in Walking With the Wind. “I began choking, coughing, I couldn’t get air in my lungs. I felt as if I was taking my last breath. People are going to die here. I’m going to die here.”
He was one of 57 people reported injured that day by police. A baton struck him on the head.
Many of us define our lives by that moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I don’t mean literally that we think of the beatings in Selma as we go about work and play. But it was an event with such power that it allows us all to re-imagine our nation, even if we never stopped to think about it.
Why was it so powerful? On one side, stood the righteous citizen — asserting himself as an individual on behalf of others — on behalf, truly, of an entire nation’s need to live up to the promise of its creed.
On the other side, stood the unthinking, violent force of the state — with all the perversions of lies and injustices that had grown up around it, ready to be weeded out.
The redemption of the marchers, who days later would be allowed to continue on to the state Capitol in Montgomery, only made the narrative more powerful, to the point that it compelled a previously hesitant Congress to quickly pass landmark civil rights legislation.
Whatever political stripe you wear, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and others couldn’t have crafted a more irresistible narrative had they tried — even to the point that Southern politicians and Alabama troopers willingly stood in as villains.
Scholars of myths and literature might talk about Lewis as a heroic archetype — first turned back on his righteous quest, then redeemed. But it’s a story with particular power in America, because it fits so neatly into our larger self-image as the city gleaming on a hill, ever driven by noble individuals to be truer to itself.
The empire struck back on that first march in Selma; the Jedi returned and marched to Montgomery.
To one degree or another, many of us — whether we’re Tea Party Patriots or tree-sitting pacifists — are pining to take a moral stand against the unjust power of the state. The rest of us may lack that impulse but want desperately to play a supporting role in that righteous quest.
It’s not surprising that Colin Beavan subtitles his book (in part): “The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet” or that he puts his challenge this way near the beginning of his book: “The question was, given the state of world affairs, whether I shouldn't have been asking more of myself.”
No Impact Man could have come across as a sort of stunt. Although it offers a route to redemption of sorts, it certainly follows in the footsteps of a few too many environmental self-flagellation journals, ranging from Super Size Me to The Cove.
You know the formula. Each is designed to illustrate in some painful way how we/they/corporate America/the government/human nature are destroying our bodies/mom-and-pop businesses/our nation/the Third World/the natural world. If Thoreau’s Walden falls into the same genre, the spate of first-person experiential documentaries represent a tradition that goes a lot further back than Jackass does.
Such movies and, in No Impact Man’s case, books can be well-told, powerful tales. But they tend to appeal to the choir and to entertain the rest.
Beavan is an artful, funny and insightful author, whose observations take his readers on surprising turns and who is able to convey with refreshing honesty an event that for a lesser writer might come across as predictable. Apart from its value as a good, insightful read or entertaining movie, however, there is something missing for someone who believes we “should be asking more of ourselves.” While Beavan understands both the idea that our environmental crisis is a collective problem and the concept of practicing what you preach, it's clear that we won't slow climate change very much if tens of thousands of his readers start using stairs instead of elevators.
“But on the eve of the start of the no-impact project, I simply thought that by taking a personal approach to the problem of the health, safety, and happiness of our species, maybe I had found a non-finger-wagging way to change some minds after all,” Beavan writes. Then, as if foreseeing that he might simply be entertaining the rest of us, he continues: “But if I couldn't, at least I would have been able to change myself. At least if I couldn't solve the problems, I'd be able to say that I had tried.”
It seems we’re still groping for a narrative that is as powerful to the environmental movement — and for climate change in particular — as the civil rights movement was for social justice.
As the marchers prepared for that second, successful march from Selma, President Lyndon Johnson grasped the symbolism of the moment in a speech to Congress quoted by Lewis in his book:
“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. ... What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
MNN homepage photo of John Lewis: ZUMA Press