- We begin on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965. John Lewis and Hosea Williams lead a group of marchers across the bridge and get attacked by the local police. We then jump to the morning of Obama’s inauguration as a much older John wakes up and prepares for his day. He goes to his office, where a family peeks in and he offers to show them around. He tells them about speaking at the March on Washington. One of the boys asks why he has so many chickens. He describes growing up in Alabama as the son of a sharecropper who eventually bought his own farm.
Here are some reasons we believe:
- First and foremost, his iconic, odd outfit on that bridge: He was wearing the standard suit and tie of the movement, but over it he had a trenchcoat and a backpack, which emphasized his young age and his preparation for going to prison.
- We always love song lyrics. As he gets ready for his day on the morning of the inauguration, he sings in the shower: “You can take my freedom, oh yes, you can take my freedom, oh, yes, but you cannot take my dignity.”
- Distinctive syntax: He says of his family’s cabin, “My father bought it in the Spring of 1940 for $300. Cash.”
- He’s got odd kid logic: “When the hens began laying their eggs, I’d mark each one with a lightly penciled number to help keep track of its progress during the three weeks it took to hatch. The numbers were always odd. Never even. I had been told never to put an even number under a sitting hen. It was bad luck.”
- His dreams are represented by an object: “I always hoped to save enough money for an actual incubator, like the $18.95 model advertised in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. We called that our wish book.”
As far as getting us to Care, this book does the classic trick of beginning with the most brutal moment in Lewis’s life, getting beaten on the bridge in 1965, then we jump forward to the framing sequence where he’s a comfortable congressman on a happy day for the country, then we jump back further to his hardscrabble childhood, having established both the highs and lows he’s heading toward. We fully care at this point. Let’s look at other reasons we care:
- In the opening vignette on the bridge, he could not be more trapped, the bridge behind him is filled with marchers pushing him forward, and they discover a club-wielding mob waiting for them at the far side of the bridge. Williams nervously asks him, “Can you swim” He says “No.” Williams responds, “Well, neither can I, but we might have to.”
- He’s viciously beaten.
- In the past, he was very poor, going to substandard “separate but equal” schools using the broken down, discarded bus of the white kids, and their discarded old school books as well.
- He’s forced by his parents to eat chickens he loves.
- When they realize militarized cops are waiting to beat them and he just says to Williams, “We should kneel and pray, Hosea.” This infuriates the cops who swarm and attack them.
- In the present, he certainly has decision making authority as a congressman (in a party that now controls all three branches of the government, starting on this day.)
- He’s a precociously smart and determined child. He can read the bible on his own at age five. On the days when his father tells him he must stay home from school to help on the farm, he hides until the bus comes by and then bolts for it just as it’s leaving, getting away to school before his father can stop him. “When I got home, my father would be furious. I was certain he would tan my hide. But he never did whip me—not over that.”
- He’s a uniquely sensitive child: “No one else could tell those chickens apart, and no one cared to. I knew every one of them by appearance and personality. There were individuals to me. Some I even named.”