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.
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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.