From UCLA to Alaska to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

7 mins read

Do you know what UCLA, Alaska and John Lewis have in common?

Well, put your stuff on mute and join me on this historical, film, sports, empathic adventure where we explore what it’s like to be an American of African ancestry, constantly battling toxic forces for your dignity, humanity and constitutional liberty.

In the early 1990s, I was finishing my psychology degree at UCLA during the off-season, pursuing my major league baseball dreams during the season and exploring the meaning of life with Williamson and Chopra for a spiritual reason. Unbeknownst to me, a young woman from Long Beach (whose cousin amazingly would be my trauma and resiliency partner two decades later) was embarking on her filmmaking dreams as a Bruin in Westwood (aka UCLA). 

The young woman’s name was Ava DuVernay, and between A Wrinkle in Time, Girls Trip and 13th, she’s left quite an imprint (for me personally, from 13th and changing my language to enslavement, enslavers, and enslaved people to the collective goddess empowerment of A Wrinkle in Time). Now where does this adventure intersect with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the bill that restores and strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that my parents bled for to make my birthright and that was ambushed and kneecapped in 2013 by unempathic members of SCOTUS? The answer is in Selma, both theatrically and literally, as Ava’s masterpiece painfully highlighted the courage and tenacity of a group of people, including John R. Lewis, who truly believed in American democracy. Sometimes I wonder if that is the case for all of WE.

For anyone thinking, “OK, I see the UCLA/John Lewis connection (BTW are you bringing up Jackie Robinson breaking the “love barrier?”), and I see the link to the Voting Rights Act, but what is up with Alaska?” I’ve got you (and, yes, as someone who played college baseball at Jackie Robinson Stadium, I was going to mention Jackie Robinson breaking the “love barrier,” since humans are shades of the same one color, brown). Do you remember the man (the radical Caucasian extremist/terrorist) who in 1965 barked at John Lewis to stop, turn around and GTFO? The fellow American who swore an oath to uphold freedom and liberty, then “puked up” the orders “troopers advance” when John Lewis went to “take a knee” (in prayer)? That man’s name was Major Cloud, and Major Cloud is where Alaska comes in.

When you play college baseball, there’s an extension season after the school year called summer league. Players from around the country head off to places like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Kansas, and, YES (you guessed it), Alaska. It’s kind of a lottery, and my summer league draw happened to be the teeny weeny oasis of Kenai, Alaska (a brief puddle-jumping, knuckleball express). On my first day in Kenai, before we were assigned host families, I was in the hotel elevator. And as the doors opened to the lobby, a smiling set of Britney Spears-like teeth greeted me and said, “Hi. I’m Mike Papajohn from Louisiana State University. Where are you from?” It turned out besides sharing a baseball dream, Michael Papajohn and I shared a thespian aspiration as well, and to this day I consider him my teammate and my SAG/AFTRA brother for life.

So, guess who played Major Cloud in Ava DuVernay’s Selma? Yep, my former Kenai teammate, Michael Papajohn. You cannot make this stuff up. I had such a visceral reaction to seeing and hearing my friend say and do the things he said and did to John Lewis’ character that I was physically ill, in a pool of tears. “Empathic immersion” is a version of empathy that focuses on experiential transfer. And in that moment my UCLA Bruin sister and my Kenai teammate had helped me like never before understand what my beloved parents were fighting for. And I believe with 444% of my heart and soul that the idea of America (freedom and liberty, birthmarked by enslavement and larceny), is worth INSISTING on and is worth HEALING up! How do you see it?

I think it’s important to put checks and balances on areas of the country that would rather cheat to win (vs. win with love). I think it’s important to honor the idea of America (vs. replay the birthmark of its founding). And I think it’s important to bridge the gap between objective truth and subjective un-truth (the way that John Lewis bridged the gap between love and fear on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, in Selma, Alabama, 12 months before I was born).

So are you ready to call our Senate teammates and restore and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act that my parents bled for to make my birthright and that was ambushed and kneecapped in 2013 by unempathic members of SCOTUS? Here’s the number: 202-224-3121. LFG team-democracy…

Because (to paraphrase Garth Brooks), “If tomorrow never comes, will America know how much we loved her? Did we try in every way to show her everyday, that she’s our only one?” (Click here to listen.)

So you know what UCLA, Alaska and John Lewis have in common? They are all a part of America, and, if you have no objections, I’d like to continue her experiment — I’m promised it’s a beautiful place where character content is valued above shade of brown… and our group empowerment allows us to see our collective crown. Sounds nice, right? Thank you, Mr. Lewis.

Thanks for reading.

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Tony Scruggs is a former professional athlete, turned actor, turned trauma-informed empathy-coach (specializing in nonviolence for communication). Tony's pronouns are he/him/his (and his descriptors are "American of African-ancestry/higher shade of brown/African-American"). You can find Tony empathizing with people @Compassioning (thanks for reading).

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