Twelve-year-old Aaron “Skip” Smith’s first impressions of civil rights leader John Lewis were not that he was courageous, deserving of respect or honor as he took action to end inequality, segregation of Blacks and Black suffrage.
The path to change of heart and mind for Smith was six years, but the transformation fairly abrupt.
Sadness caused by the death of his friend Lewis on July 17 led Smith to reflect on his pre-teen notions, and beyond, to the present day.
Because of Jim Crow laws, even in Parsons, the Black community often relied on Ebony and Jet magazines for news, stories and information that focused on their culture, entertainment and politics, as elsewhere Black people remained mostly invisible, except portrayals on a few food products or on television “as some eye-rolling buffoon,” like comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
The magazines were a mainstay in many Black households.
“I was reading those all the time. I saw the pictures as a little kid of Emmett Till, and how his body had been mutilated, and that his mom asked for an open casket so the world could see this atrocity,” Smith recalled.
It was the horrific murder of 14-year-old Till in 1955, laid bare by Jet magazine, that is said to have ignited the civil rights movement, with the brutality of racism exposed. Smith was then 5.
“Most parents would say, ‘Don’t expose your kids to that.’ Well you were just telling me, ‘Expose yourself to that,’” Smith said chuckling. “I was always an avid reader and we always talked around the dinner table about things that were going on in the Black community.”
By third grade, he was paying closer attention to the articles he read concerning the civil rights movement. At first, he said, he was proud, seeing Blacks stand up for their rights.
“Then as I got a little older, even 12, I began to formulate my own concepts,” Smith said.
He heeded the disparities that took place between Black and white people as integration of schools was imposed, such as white people being allowed to use the bathroom or get a drink of water and Black students being refused permission to do the same.
“I was very conscientious of the disparity and began to speak out to the teachers, and they would reject me calling them out,” Smith said. “Other students were conditioned not to speak out or challenge the status quo. I did and I always would.”
He learned to navigate through systemic racism, but would always challenge it, and there was ample opportunity as the civil rights movement pushed forward revealing rampant prejudices and hatred, especially in the South, where movement leaders challenged unjust laws such as segregation on interstate buses.
“I read about and saw on the evening news where the buses were being bombed and John Lewis and various white Freedom Riders were set upon, where the sheriffs and law would deliberately desert the bus stations and let the toughs have their way. They received vicious beatings,” Smith said. “They were setting an example and they kept going along city to city and they knew, at each city the beatings may be worse. One white rider was killed. John Lewis never wavered and this was before the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
At that point, young Smith was beginning to read Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee along with Lewis but began turning against the concepts of nonviolent protests encouraged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They began saying, ‘This ain’t working,’ and they started challenging Dr. King.
“I’m saying, ‘What Stokely is saying makes sense to me,’ but I’m a 12-year-old kid. I don’t see the whole picture,” Smith said.
Stokely was tired of the encouragement for nonviolence in response to violence. The federal government refused to interfere in what was happening in the South because of the potential political fallout, so the ruthless attacks on the peaceful protesters continued.
“You had these young Black men in college, these philosophers … in their thinking, nobody gives up anything without a fight,” Smith said. “They had started reading Mao (Zedong) and Fidel Castro, things of that nature. In all of their readings they found that nobody gives up power or control without a battle. They started saying, ‘This nonviolence and being a pacifist is not worth it.’
“I’m seeing it on TV every evening. When I saw that beating they took at the Edmund Pettus (1965)… . They didn’t just set upon them and chase them off the bridge; they ran them down into various neighborhoods and still continued to beat them. That is when I told my mom, ‘Why are they such cowards? Why are they doing this?’
“She said, ‘They have their reasons.’
“I said, ‘No one would do that to me,’” Smith recalled of his 12-year-old self, living far away from where the attacks were happening.
“My mom said, ‘In your whole little body, you couldn’t muster up enough courage to make a pimple on their ass.’ And then she said, ‘You need to shut up.’ And I shut up, because there were two things: One there was no democracy in our household. She let us know she was the queen. Two, she was not a pacifist.”
That didn’t stop Smith from believing what he believed, and as he moved through is teen years, he became more radical in his thoughts.
“I read Mao and I read Castro, and everything I read showed me a revolution doesn’t come from peaceful demonstrations, it was mano a mano,” Smith said.
When he first realized what Lewis and the other demonstrators went through, and why, he got his military orders, got on a ship and went directly to Vietnam. The year was 1968. He had just turned 18.
He had seen all the movies concerning World War II like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” the men facing near certain death on the beach, but such scenes did not register in the forefront of his thoughts when he decided he was bored, dropped out of community college and joined the Navy.
The closer they got to South Vietnam the more nervous he became. The familiar scenes began to pop up from his memory banks. As they neared the country and the mountain tops of Laos and Cambodia became visible, thoughts bombarded him of what he was headed into.
“Anxiety came on me. I don’t know about my fellow shipmates, though I’m sure they were experiencing the same thing. I know I was thinking, ‘What have I got myself into?’ Then came the heart palpitations and they got faster and harder. I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest. Then the cold sweat, and I felt like my tongue was swelling and it was so salty I felt like I was going to throw up. I’m just having total horror about what I’m thinking is getting ready to happen here.
“And it dawned on me, those people, the demonstrators, the Freedom Riders, went to numerous marches expecting and anticipating the worst because they knew what these sheriffs would do and they knew they could be killed or maimed because of the brutality, but they knew they had to expose on national TV this. That’s when I realized that’s courage. That’s when I realized my mom knew something, and she didn’t have the time to bring it out and try to make me understand.
“The beauty of the movement was they knew how to orchestrate and get the attention of the networks and the magazines. The Freedom Riders, the demonstrators, Dr. King, all of them understood that without that exposure, the movement’s going nowhere,” Smith said. “They baited people like (County Sheriff) Jim Clark … . They knew how they would react and they had the cameras to tell the world, ‘This is what is going on.’ They knew those beatings were coming and they knew some may not survive.”
The realization of the sacrifice made to invoke change for all Blacks grabbed Smith, and he recalled his mother’s words from six years before.
Racism ran thick in the military. Fighting side by side as equals did not erase it, often leaving Blacks fighting on two fronts, and after Martin Luther King was killed, celebrations by white racists overseas left Black soldiers edgier and fights often broke out. By the time Smith returned from Vietnam, a few things had changed. Most had not.
Black veterans, honorably discharged, were told not to wear their uniforms in public when returning stateside, for fear they would be beaten, Smith said, a similar reaction to Black veterans returning from World War II who were lynched, rather than honored as equal citizens having sacrificed for their fellow Americans.
Smith returned to the states. Time passed. Things did change to some capacity, slowly, much due to the efforts of King, Lewis and others.
Smith finished his undergraduate work at Pittsburg State University and obtained a master’s degree in graphics in 1975. He learned all aspects of commercial art, moved to various cities across the United States and supported himself by commercial work before finally settling down in Atlanta, where he lived for 15 years. It was there Smith, at an exhibit of his artwork at the grand opening of the newly renovated Old Fellows Building, met Lewis, the famed civil rights leader of his childhood, who had fought to save the historical building.
By that time, Lewis was starting his first term in the U.S. House for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Talk was simple and cordial, as is common at such social events. He met Lewis in similar capacities over time, and now familiar with one another, they would exchange pleasantries. Smith ended up moving back to Parsons in 1998, and it was then his friendship with Lewis grew. Smith went to work for Southeast Kansas Independent Living as a photographer, documenting the disability rights protests at the local, state and national level. When in Washington, D.C., every year, shooting photos of the marches, Smith would commonly run into Lewis, who always seemed to be there listening to the concerns and/or speaking, and they came to know each other more intimately.
On one such occasion, around 2012 or 2013, Smith, finishing a 5-mile march in the summer heat, found himself standing next to Lewis, who was waiting to go up to speak. Smith decided finally to share with Lewis the story from his childhood, and how he had followed the Big Six leader through the attacks on Bloody Sunday and beyond. Smith shared how he had criticized Lewis, how his mother had chastised him for it, and how his views came to change of Lewis’ and others’ sacrifice and why.
As he revealed his story, Lewis began to smile, until Smith neared the end of his story, telling Lewis, it was courage Lewis exhibited Smith didn’t believe he would have had. Tears welled in Lewis’ eyes, and he said, “Thank you, brother. Thank you.”
A friend snapped a picture of Lewis and Smith that day, standing side-by-side. Smith didn’t know that would be the last time he got to visit with Lewis in person.
Uncannily, as civil rights has entered the forefront of the news again, some protesting peacefully, some expressing their voice through anger and action, Lewis passed.
Lewis’ words still echo with Smith: “If you see something, say something,” which people are trying to do, amid other organizations and anarchists hijacking their cause, creating chaos. “You can’t afford all your hard work to be flushed down the tube because people with a different agenda jump on. You have to be just as diligent and vigilant towards the outside ills, as the ills that are coming from within.’ You’ve got to make that distinction.”