We often forget that civil rights heroes are real people. We read about their acts of bravery, but they remain two-dimensional, stuck in the pages of our history books. But our heroes had families. They had sons and daughters who often witnessed the violence and trauma inflicted on their parents in the struggle for freedom.
One of these sons is David Dennis Jr.., who recently wrote, The movement made us: a father, a son and the legacy of a freedom tour which chronicles his father’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. David Dennis Sr. joined CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) in 1960 and later organized lunchtime sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration campaigns. He was also beaten and imprisoned and witnessed the brutal deaths of some of his closest friends and fellow freedom fighters.
In the moving memoir, Dennis Jr. alternates between his point of view and his father’s, pulling together stories from when his father was on the front lines. Throughout the book, readers learn about the sacrifices made by civil rights activists and the trauma that black families had to endure in the fight for freedom.
Dennis Jr. recently sat down with ESSENCE to talk about writing the book, what he learned about his father in the process, and how the book helped heal his relationship with his father.
It’s such an important story to tell. Why was it the right time to write this book?
DAVID DENNIS JR. – The logistical answer is that my dad is now 81, and I was really thinking about the time we had and wanted to get these stories done as quickly as possible. Plus there was the fact that a lot of this book was written when Donald Trump was president and a ton was written after George Floyd’s summer, and we just felt like we had needed some sort of reminder of what ordinary people could do. accomplish and what can be done if we just do Something. I think we found a way to make a book that wasn’t like a step-by-step guide to civil rights activism, but something that showed what’s possible, and I think that’s is why it is so timely.
As you spoke to your father about his time on the front lines, what surprised you that he lived or witnessed?
DENNIS JR. – When you hear these stories and oral histories, you don’t really know the timeline of everything. So I didn’t realize that the Harlem Riot [in 1964] happened just when [Civil Rights fighters] Goodman, Charter and Schwerner were [shot to death] and missing. A lot of these things happened over the course of a few days or a few weeks. There really was no downtime and it was just a constant barrage of really intense moments. Those are some of the things that I learned – how much action and all the trauma and violence was happening during this time.
How has your relationship with your father changed since writing the book?
DENNIS JR. – My dad and I were in a good place so we could write the book, but we were kind of in an unspoken good place where a lot of parents and kids get to where they’re good, but they haven’t doesn’t really talk about how they got there. So this book led us to have these conversations that put us in a much better place that I didn’t even really know existed. We just finished the book tour and we’re traveling together, hanging out and doing all kinds of things, and we don’t have anything unspoken between us.
You write about your anger at the world and what the movement has taken from you and your father. How did you come to terms with your anger?
DENNIS JR. – Sometimes I still feel angry. Not necessarily for my father and me, but for others. For the families that couldn’t have this experience, my dad and I just had. I’m angry that Medgar Evers doesn’t have time to do this with his kids. Or Herbert Lee or James Chaney who had a daughter born days before he was killed. They don’t have the opportunity that me and my dad had and it’s really frustrating.
But I also saw that there are many healing qualities in this book. People reached out and said how good it was for them to have this. I think sometimes when you can heal your relationships and have better relationships with your kids, it can fix things that were lost in the past.
People who write memoirs, especially those that are deeply emotional or traumatic, often need breaks. Have you ever felt like you had to take breaks or step away from the book?
DENNIS JR. – It was more like micro-breaks. I would try to somehow buffer my time and Dad’s time with some self-care. We would hang out and I would ask him tough questions, then make sure we did something fun in the evening. I was mostly looking after him, making sure he got breaks and making sure I didn’t push too hard. For my part, I would take breaks between book drafts. When the publisher had the book, I tried not to think about it at all so I could come back to it as best I could. But my main concern was that my father was okay.
Do you and your dad talk about the Black Lives Matter Civil Rights movement today? What does he think of the movement?
DENNIS JR. – He sees a lot of hope there. One of the good things is that he feels that people are doing something, which is extremely important. It’s good that people are getting organized, and it’s good that people are trying to follow these traditions of learning from local communities.
What is one thing you want readers to take away from this book?
DENNIS JR. – I want people to feel they can do something. I want them to know that you don’t have to be Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers. You don’t have to die to be considered someone who has done something. And I want people to have the power to say, “If I’m going to do one thing, then I’m doing something positive. If everyone has the mentality of “let me do something to free us or to free people like us”, then I think everyone will do something. I also hope you see that these are real people. They are not perfect heroes. They are real people just trying to do something. And if you try to do something, we can go far.