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  • Writer's pictureMark Wagner

Studying the lives of John Lewis and Malcolm X

During my freshman year in college I was encouraged by one of my professors to consider becoming a history major. In one of the sweet ironies of my life I can remember saying to him, “The only job I could get with a history degree is teaching. I don’t want to do that.” I wound up studying science and math and then immediately got a job teaching. Of course I loved teaching...wouldn’t you know.

While my life journey led in a different direction, I have always been fascinated by history. Part of what draws me in is its story-telling quality. A well written history can carry me along like a great novel. Knowing that the characters and events are real makes it all the more compelling. I also find that history can help me see my own life and times with new eyes. I experienced all of that through two biographies that I read recently. The first, His Truth is Marching On; John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham, explores the life of the pioneering civil rights leader. Seared by the injustices of the Jim Crow south and inspired by his passionate Christian faith, Lewis embodied the principles of nonviolent resistance. Time and again Lewis chose to risk his life instead of giving in to the powerful forces that were arrayed in opposition to basic civil rights for Black Americans. Lewis referred to this practice as getting into “good trouble”. His was a life of profound courage and service. The second is The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Propelled by an extraordinary intellect and prodigious leadership skills, Malcolm X responded to the injustices he experienced by becoming a key force in the Nation of Islam, which at the time advocated complete separation of the races in America. After splitting with the Nation of Islam and embracing more mainstream Islamic beliefs Malcolm X became an international figure who continued to fiercely criticize racial inequality in the United States and around the world. Assassinated at the age of 39, Malcolm X established himself as an important figure in American history during his brief life.

What struck me most forcefully in learning about the lives of these two remarkable men is how both refused to accept a status quo that denied the fundamental humanity of American citizens based solely on the color of their skin. At great cost to themselves, but through very different means, they devoted their lives to correcting a wrong. As Black History Month comes to a close I think it appropriate to reflect on people of color, like John Lewis and Malcolm X, who have played such an important role in shaping the history of this great country. I highly recommend both of these books, and any others that help to tell our nation’s complicated and fascinating story.


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