“Have you ever been in a protest march?” a student asked me last spring during an author visit. “What a great question,” I said as I scanned my brain for a reply.
I love working with young people in schools, and Q&A time is perhaps my favorite part of a visit. The repartee of rapid-fire question and reply becomes a playful exercise in mental gymnastics. After a dozen years of visiting schools, I’ve heard most of the questions before. Other authors are nodding at this point. Like me they may relish the first-time questions, the ones that make you think.
This question made me think.
Wow, I said to myself, as my mind came up blank. Have I never been in a protest march? I marveled at that possibility. I considered January 20, 1973, the day of Richard Nixon’s second inauguration. My mom was in a protest march that day, a demonstration held near the inaugural parade route expressing opposition to the Vietnam War. I had wanted to march with her, but instead I was stuck in my own silent protest.
My suburban D.C. boarding school observed the tradition of attending all inaugural parades no matter the students’ take on current events. Miss Keyser was a formidable presence, but I went up against our headmistress ahead of the field trip. And lost. “Everyone goes, Ann,” she said. “Everyone.” And that was that. So, at age 15, I fumed in the parade stands as Nixon rode by waving with Pat from an open car.
The seconds were ticking by. “Have I ever been in a protest march?” I asked rhetorically as stalled to frame my lame response. “You know, I don’t believe I ever have, as hard as that is to imagine. I guess I’d better do something about that!”
|John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, Ann Bausum in 2007.|
I’ve recalled that question more than once in the intervening months. Me, the persistent author about social justice issues, and I can’t recall ever participating in direct social protest. Instead I seem to live vicariously through others who did. Battles for woman’s suffrage. Fights from the Civil Rights Movement. Struggles to achieve free speech during wartime. Challenges faced by immigrants. The powers of investigative journalism.
I’ve kept in touch with Jim Zwerg, one of the student activists featured in my 2006 book Freedom Riders. Recently Jim and I swapped our thoughts about the power of nonviolence. My interest in this force stays with me even after writing more than once about its influence on history.
In my message to Jim I commented on the new book by Congressman John Lewis, Jim’s lifelong friend, Nashville student movement ally, and blood brother from the Freedom Rides. John Lewis’s text, Across that Bridge, reads like a prayer of remembrance and hope for the spirit of the civil rights movement. I’ve found it both moving and inspirational. After recommending it, I concluded my note to Jim by writing:
“So you see, you and John and the Movement and the spirit of goodness just all flow through me in a very powerful and inspiring way. That's where the words come from. Thank you for living them so that I can write them down.”
|Memphis strike. Courtesy U. of Memphis Special Col.|
Even if I haven’t walked in a protest march, I’ve retraced the routes of many, from the picket marches women led to the White House during World War I, to the blacktopped ribbons traveled by Freedom Riders in 1961, to the well-worn Memphis route paced in 1968 by sanitation workers during the strike that drew Martin Luther King, Jr., toward his death.
But that doesn’t mean that I should only travel the established paths of history. Now I have my antennae up. Somewhere I’ll put my feet down for a cause and add a little personal shoe leather to the health of our Republic.
Plus I’ll have a different answer the next time a student asks, “Have you ever been in a protest march?”