This semester, I am teaching two Civil Rights era memoirs: Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White and John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March Trilogy. I thoroughly enjoy these texts, and I enjoy teaching them. However, as I reread them, I keep thinking about what the texts don’t cover. I understand that each of these works are focused on the experiences of individuals, Weaver and Lewis respectively. As such, they cannot cover every aspect of the movement. As well, they both work to add to the cultural narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, a narrative that differs from the extensive historical record one would encounter within a classroom or in scholarly texts focused on the movement. Yet, the more I learn and read, the more I think about small moments here and there where a broader fleshing out of some things could occur. Within the realm of graphic memoirs, though, this becomes hard, especially consider the production of such texts. Today, I want to look at a couple of moments, specifically in March, where I wanted to see more. In this manner, March and Darkroom serve as a springboard for broader, lengthier discussions and inquiry in the classroom.
The first moment occurred in March Book One when we see the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. This moment caught my attention because of other things that I have learned about SNCC during that period. March cannot cover the October 14-16 meeting that took place in Atlanta in the lead up to the Atlanta sit-ins on October 19, notably because Lewis did not participate in those sit-ins; so, this moment, for me, serves as a space for educators to fill in more of the history, illuminating the picture.
The October Atlanta sit-ins are important for a myriad of reasons, most notably because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest and his transfer to DeKalb County after the release of the participants, himself included, in Fulton County. That transfer, and the move by the judge to send King to Reidsville, prompted the Kennedy campaign to work to get King out of jail. They succeeded, and their role in getting King released helped John F. Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. That is not the entire story though. That doesn’t get into why King was transferred to DeKalb while the students got released. He was transferred there because he had violated his probation, a probation that he received back in the spring of 1960 when an officer pulled him over and gave him a ticket for driving without a Georgia license, he had just moved back to Georgia from Alabama.
The officer pulled King over because he saw King driving with a white woman sitting next to him in the front seat, not because he knew that King didn’t have a Georgia license. That woman was Lillian Smith, and King, along with his wife Coretta, had just eaten supper with her and were taking her back to Emory Hospital where Smith was undergoing cancer treatment. Smith and King connected back in 1956 when they corresponded about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and they remained friends until her passing in 1966.
As well, Smith delivered the keynote speech, “Are We Still Buying a New World With Old Confederate Bills?”, Sunday evening at the October SNCC meeting. She spoke to those in attendance, praising and supporting their work as she lamented the lack of white southerners involved in the movement. Writing about the meeting, the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that out of the 200 students present, only about 10 southern white students appeared to take part. They added, “The meeting ended Sunday night with a speech by controversial Georgia author Lillian Smith, who told committee members and observers that the sitdown movement ‘has magnificent possibilities.'” The Alabama Tribune noted that 250 attended the weekend conference, and they quoted excerpts from Smith’s speech. Unlike other newspaper accounts of the weekend, the Alabama Tribune included a photograph of Smith talking with Ed B. King and Bernard Lee following her speech.
Together with all of this, SNCC used Smith’s work extensively within the organization. Throughout March, we see the impact of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, linking March and the comic in a lineage of the impact of sequential art in educating and motivating individuals to action. Along with texts such as Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, we know that other texts inspired the movement and made their way around to individuals. Two of those texts were Smith’s Killers of the Dream and The Journey. Originally published in 1949, Smith updated and republished Killers of the Dream in 1961 for the movement, and SNCC members, as well as others, read it and passed it around.
The Journey appeared in 1954, and in the memoir Smith explores mortality as she comes to terms with her cancer diagnosis. In October 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) started having “group conversations” where individuals would gather and discuss books and ideas that would move the movement forward. As someone from the SCLC wrote to Smith in 1963, “We are using, as reference, your book ‘The Journey’ and wish we could get reprints of your [recent] Sat. Review article.”
March and Darkroom cannot bring Smith’s contributions to the movement into the narrative, and it is understandable why. I cannot bring all of Smith’s contributions to the movement within this blog post. That type of engagement requires a lot more space. However, what this post, along with March and Darkroom can do, though, is open the door to further exploration and uncovering of the history of the movement. This knowledge led me to interview Joan Browning and L.J. Harrison for the Lillian E. Smith Center’s podcast. Both Browning and Harrison took part in the movement, working with SNCC, and both continued their activism throughout their lives.
In the next post, I’ll continue this discussion by looking at Pauli Murray and the ways that March, in conjunction with my research into Murray, has continued to expand my knowledge of the movement. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.