Half a century after the March on Washington in August 1963, the civil rights movement can seem to some like a distant memory. And for generations born well after the movement’s most dramatic chapters in the 1950s and ’60s — the lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides (in which activists challenged the segregation of buses in the South), the violent attacks on peaceful protesters in Selma and Montgomery — it can feel like ancient history.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) refreshes our memories in dramatic fashion in “March: Book One,” the first part of a planned three-volume graphic novel co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by bestselling artist Nate Powell (“Swallow Me Whole,” “The Silence of Our Friends”). The first graphic novel by a sitting member of Congress, "March" focuses on Lewis' pioneering role on the front lines of the movement, when he helped to organize the sit-ins in Nashville in 1959 and early 1960, suffered beatings as part of the Freedom Rides, and marched in Mississippi, his home state of Alabama and elsewhere.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Lewis, 73, for a phone interview from his congressional office in Washington. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How did the idea of doing a graphic novel based on your life develop?
A: The idea came out of the fact that a member of my campaign staff, Andrew Aydin, said to a group of campaign workers that he was going to Comic-Con in San Diego. And they made fun of him and said, "Oh, you read comic books!" And I said, "You shouldn't just dismiss that." I remembered a comic book that came out in 1957, when I was 17 years old. It was called "Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story," and it had a great deal of influence on me. It made me take a look at the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It also had an influence on the students who were sitting in at the lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C.
So a few days later, this young man came back to me and said, "Congressman, you need to write a comic book!" And I said, "Oh, not really." But he kept on, and finally I said, "I'm gonna do it — if you do it with me." And that was five years ago.
Q: I'm guessing he interviewed you to bring out the stories?
A: Yes, that's what we did. He interviewed me over and over, and got the stories down, and then we secured the artist, Nate Powell. So Book One is here.
Q: It deals in large part with the lunch-counter sit-ins you were involved with in Nashville just a week after the Greensboro students were the first to do it. Do you wish, as you look back, that you and your friends in Nashville had done it first?
A: Well, we actually started test sit-ins, and the nonviolence workshops in preparation for the later sit-ins, in November of 1959, which was before Greensboro. So yes, right then, we should have started sitting in on a regular basis. But the whole idea was to negotiate and wait until the early part of the following year, after the holidays.
Q: But it's the Greensboro sit-ins that we remember, not the Nashville sit-ins, at least not as much.
A: That's right. But it was the Nashville sit-ins that, according to Dr. King, were the more disciplined ones. And we had a greater understanding of the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We had a great teacher, a young man by the name of Jim Lawson, who was a Methodist minister and a pacifist. He taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And many of us in Nashville accepted nonviolence as a way of life, a way of living, not simply as a technique or a tactic.
Q: There were some people, as you note in "March," who realized during the nonviolence training that they were not cut out for the sit-ins.
A: Yes, there were people who couldn't take it, couldn't take the discipline. But they did other things, like picking people up and taking them to the meeting places, or passing out leaflets, or making signs. But they couldn't handle putting themselves in positions where they could be attacked or arrested. And it was good that they knew that.
Q: Because the urge to fight back was just too strong.
A: That's right. It was in Nashville, you know, where we came up with the list of Do's and Don'ts. "Don't fight back." "Don't talk back." "Sit up straight." "Don't lash out." "Obey your leader." "Look straight ahead."
Q: There's a concern that young people today, including many young black people, don't appreciate or even know very much about the civil rights movement. I'm guessing that with this graphic novel, you're addressing that group of people in particular.
A: That's really the motivating factor for doing it as a graphic novel: to reach young people. As we've been working on it, we've talked to teachers and librarians who tell us they need this. They want it in the classroom — and in fact there will be a teacher's guide to go with this — and in libraries all across the country.
Q: The kids might read a graphic novel, I guess the thinking is, when they might not pick up a thick history book about the civil rights movement.
A: Right, because in a graphic novel, the story comes alive. You can see movement. It makes it simple, makes it real. It makes it plain.
Q: When I was reading it, I was also reminded of what a close relationship graphic novels have to movies. The way the panels are laid out, they're like a storyboard for a movie.
A: Well, there was a lot of drama, and the book dramatizes that. Back in Nashville, people were always saying, "What should we do?" And I said, "We need to find a way to dramatize the issue. We need to put a face on it." And the book does that.
Q: Of course, a lot of movies have been made from graphic novels.
A: There's interest already, in America and abroad, in the possibility of making a film of it. But right now we just want to get it out there for young people and their parents to read. And if young people see something that's not right, not fair, not just, we hope the books help them find ways to deal with it in a peaceful, organized fashion.
Q: You went to Comic-Con yourself recently to promote the book. What was that like?
A: It was very exciting. There were thousands of people there, not just from the U.S., but from Europe, from Japan, from Central and South America. A lot of people were in costume, you know, looking like Batman or Superman or whatever. A lot of people came by our booth to discuss the book, and I was almost moved to tears by some of them. They would come up and start crying and saying, "I never thought I would meet you. My mother and father and grandparents have read about you. And to see you here — " That kind of thing. It was very, very moving.
Q: Give me a preview, if you will, of Books Two and Three.
A: They'll cover pretty much everything. The March on Washington, for example, which was 50 years ago this August. We'll go through Selma. We'll go through a lot of things I witnessed or participated in, such as when Bobby Kennedy heard that Dr. King had been assassinated, or when he himself was assassinated in 1968, and I was in his hotel room. We'll cover the whole story, and not leave anything out.
Q: You were also involved in the famous Freedom Rides.
A: I was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961, yes. We'll cover that in the books, too, by all means. That was a very, very dangerous period. We had been beaten in Rock Hill, S.C., and later in the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. We were in a church in Montgomery, and Dr. King went down in the basement and made a call to Robert Kennedy. The president called out the National Guard and put the city of Montgomery under martial law, and dispatched federal marshals to protect people. If it hadn't been for President Kennedy and his brother, some of us could have died in that church.
Q: What's your sense of where we are today in terms of civil rights and race relations? Things have improved, obviously, but even though we have an African-American president, I think many people would say we still have a long way to go.
A: We've made a lot of progress, there's no denying that. Sometimes I hear people say nothing has changed, and I say, "Come and walk in my shoes." The country is a different country. We're a better country, a better people. The signs that I saw when I was growing up in rural Alabama in the '40s and the '50s, and even when I was a student in Nashville in the early '60s — "White men," "Colored men," "White Women," "Colored Women" — the only places you'd see those signs today would be in a book, in a museum, or on a video.
Q: But — ?
A: But even today, when we have a man of color as president of the United States, the scars and the stain of racism are still deeply embedded in our society and our culture. And there are still too many people who are left out and left behind. And there's too much violence. I hope young people will read this book, and the other two to come, and learn something about the power of love, the power of nonviolence, the power of respecting the dignity and worth of every human being. I want them to learn to not be so quick to respond to negative things in a violent fashion, but rather with words, peace and love. Those are the things that truly work.
"March: Book One"
By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, Top Shelf Productions, 112 pages, $14.95 paperback