Fresh off leading a “sit-in” on the floor of the House of Representatives, author and Civil Rights leader Congressman John Lewis spoke to librarians at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference, delivering a message of hope and perseverance.
“We still have a distance to go,” he told the audience. “There are still forces in America that want to divide us along racial lines, religious lines, sex, class. But we’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress to stop or to pull back. We must go forward. And I believe we will get there.”
Lewis appeared as part of a special event at ALA (which ends its run in Orlando June 28) celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment of the Humanities, along with his co-authors of the March series of graphic novels, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. NEH Chairman William D. Adams was also on hand, and in his introductory remarks, connected support for the humanities with the health of our democracy, telling librarians that the establishment of the NEH in the middle of the “great society” legislative push of the 1960s, which included the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, was no accident.
“There is no democracy without the act of memory,” Adams said, adding that the “humanities and democracy are deeply and permanently intertwined in the history of the life of this country.”
In the NEH’s 50-year history, Adams noted, the NEH has made about 63,000 grants to individuals and cultural institutions across the country totaling $5.3 billion, with libraries a major recipient of that support—nearly 3,400 library grants over the last 50 years totaling $515 million, and another 80 grants to the ALA, beginning in 1971. One of the NEH’s most recent grants—to ALA’s Great Stories Club program, which provides access to books to at-risk and underserved youth—has put March in the hands of many young readers nationwide.
In his talk, Lewis reflected on his life, and struck a note for social justice and inclusion—a dominant theme at this year’s ALA, beginning with Michael Eric Dyson’s opening keynote. Lewis also spoke briefly of his recent “sit-in” in Congress, an effort to pressure Congress to act on gun control measures following the hate-fueled mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12.
“We meet here in Orlando, a city where, two weeks ago, what happened was a crime against humanity,” Lewis said. “And that's why I made up my mind that I could not be silent anymore, that I had to speak out. And sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary.” He told librarians there was “a moral obligation” to speak out in the face of great injustice—and just as he did during the marches of the 1960s Civil Rights movement—to “find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Lewis went on to celebrate the work of librarians, for helping kids engage with history “so they can learn never ever to make the mistakes” of past generations.
“What March is saying is that it doesn't matter whether we are black or white, Latino or Asian, it doesn't matter whether we are straight or gay,” he said. “We are one people, with one family. We all live in the same house…. and through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Despite appearing to be one of the lesser attended annual conferences in recent years (at press time official ALA attendance figures were not available) the 2016 ALA Annual Conference has brought a large measure of positivity to the city of Orlando, still reeling from the tragic events of June 12. ALA attendees participated in a memorial service and blood drive among other events organized in honor of the victims.