The Civil Rights Movement transformed the United States in ways so fundamental it’s difficult for many to conceive that this nation once tolerated, and even encouraged, state-sanctioned discrimination. Rights that all Americans take for granted were bitterly contested just a few decades ago, and without the courage and fortitude of a handful of individuals American society might be profoundly different. John Robert Lewis was one of those unlikely heroes that fought non-violently to make the United States a more just society.
Congressman Lewis, the former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest speaker at 1963’s March on Washington. Today Lewis, 73, is the elder statesmen of movement, the only person who delivered remarks at the Lincoln Memorial still living. Lewis brings his amazing story to a new generation with the publication of MARCH (Book One) the first part of a trilogy from Top Shelf Productions that will trace Lewis’ life from rural Alabama to the halls of power in Washington D.C.
MARCH, a collaboration between Lewis, longtime aide Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole), follows Lewis from his boyhood as the son of tenant farmers to his participation in Nashville’s successful sit-in campaign to desegregate restaurants and lunch counters. MARCH offers a poignant portrait of an iconic figure that both entertains and edifies, and deserves to be placed alongside other historical graphic memoirs like Persepolis and MAUS.
We sat down with Rep. Lewis and Andrew Aydin to talk about the publication of the book one of MARCH.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congressman, in 1998 you produced an award-winning memoir, Walking with the Wind. Why choose to produce a graphic novel rather than updating your memoir for a new audience?
Rep. John Lewis: Well it’s important for another generation, children, young people in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and people not so young to feel and touch, almost smell this piece of history. Walking with the Wind [included] a few photographs, but MARCH is action, it is drama, and I believe in drama. I just think [the graphic novel format] was the way to go, to tell the story of some poor boy growing up in rural Alabama, who wanted to be a minster, and raised chickens and preached to the chickens, baptized those chickens, gave them names, and would later go through the civil rights movement and get elected to Congress. In my estimation, MARCH best communicates the drama and passion.
Andrew Aydin: Congressman Lewis told me that there was a comic book during the movement that was incredibly influential. And that moment was incredible to me because it was the first time that I had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was a 1957 comic book, published by an organization called the Fellowship for Reconciliation, which was very influential in the early days of the movement. The comic book itself told the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and what they called in that book the Montgomery method but what we know now today as the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.
Congressman Lewis, when did you first come across this MLK comic?
In college. A young man named Jim Lawson came to Nashville. He was a pacifist who had traveled to India as part of the Methodist Student Movement and he would be talking about Gandhi and the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. I made it a point to go the meeting and he had a copy of the comic book and he shared it with us. Lawson led non-violent workshops and I was going to the workshops and reading the book and I became imbued with the philosophy of nonviolence just studying the Montgomery Story and I said to myself, “if they can do it in Montgomery we can do it in Nashville.”
What’s the collaborative process been like for the two of you?
Aydin: It’s a lot of late nights and a lot of working weekends. Obviously the Congressman has a day job. For me, it’s been sort of a challenge to keep up. He works so hard. I’ve had to train myself to be able to do full 18 hour days, seven days a week. It’s a lot of talking, a lot of back and forth. Lots of emails and talking with Nate Powell, who’s very much involved in this process every step of the way. Over the years we’ve worked together in many capacities and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Rep. Lewis: Sometimes Andrew will put something down and Nate will contribute a drawing and we’ll go back and forth, saying “this is it, maybe this is not, that’s not quite the way it happened.” It’s a give and take until we arrive and make it accurate. I contributed, aside from the history, I have an unbelievable memory — I hate to say that — but I remember everything. I can tell you the time of day, the hour the minute when something happened and what people said and how they said it.
Aydin: Congressman Lewis is an unbelievable storyteller. This book is steeped in the oral tradition, and the way the congressman brings these things alive to kids — something I see all the time in his congressional office — was an experience we wanted to capture. His story needs to be preserved and shared, it needs to go beyond what one man can do in one moment of time it needs to go everywhere.
Congressman Lewis, one of the things that struck me reading MARCH is how impatient you were to make change. At one point in the book you say that you were not just pushing for civil rights but rebelling against an older generation of Black leaders. What led you to rebel at such a young age?
Rep. Lewis: Well, as a young person growing up I felt that I had been called. I felt that I had been touched by something; today I call it the Spirit of History. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something about it. When I spoke at the March on Washington I said, “You tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient but we cannot wait and we cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now!” I was so deeply inspired by the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of MLK. In 1956, when I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went to the public library in Troy, Alabama, trying to get library cards so we can check out some books and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only, not for coloreds, so I never went back there until July 5, 1998, for a book signing for Walking with the Wind…at the end of the program they gave me a library card, my very first library card. I didn’t need a library card in college in Nashville; it was so small everybody knew everybody.
What message do you want your readers to come away with after they’ve read part one of MARCH?
Rep. Lewis: I want the readers, young and not so young, to understand that at another time in our history a group of people, young people, students, studied the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. They heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., they followed the actions of Rosa Parks and some of us were deeply inspired by a comic book that came out in 1957 about Martin Luther King. It was time for another comic to come out and set out what we did and how we did it. When I was growing up in rural Alabama and would ask my mother and my father, my grandparents and great-grandparents about the signs that I saw saying “Colored Waiting Room” and “White Waiting Room,” I would ask why and they would say “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.” But I was inspired with others to get in the way, to get into trouble, what I call a good trouble. So I want another generation of young people to read MARCH and look at these innocent young people who were inspired to put their bodies on the line for a cause.
You went to San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks ago and you made quite a splash. Can you talk about your experiences there?
Rep. Lewis: I was so impressed with the Comic-Con, to see hundreds of thousands of people, parents and grandparents and children, so many people but so orderly. It felt like a happening. I felt accepted; I felt a sense of kindred spirits. I met folks from all over America and even abroad who were waiting to meet me, who were happy to meet me and give me hugs. People came up in tears to say that that their grandfather or their father or mother had told them about me or that their pastor or rabbi had marched with me in Washington or in Selma. I felt very much at home.
In MARCH, you talk about learning about Emmett Till and feeling like ‘this could be me.’ What do you have to say to the youth of today who are living through Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant? How should they push past that feeling of crisis?
Rep. Lewis: I remember that day in 1955, when Emmett Till was lynched, like it was yesterday. I had relatives, cousins who would travel from Buffalo and Detroit to the rural South to visit. I thought it could have been one of them, it could have been any of us. I thought about Travyon and Emmett Till over and over again. I say to young people today, whether it’s in New York or in Florida, if you see something, do something about it. Organize, mobilize, but never become bitter, never become hostile. Study the way of peace, study the way of love, study the way of non-violence. Make some noise in a non-violent fashion.
A slightly different question. There is a bit of a beef right now between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z concerning Jay Z’s level of activism. You worked closely with Belafonte when you were head of SNCC and you also worked alongside Jay Z and Beyoncé to elect and re-elect President Obama. What would you say to them?
Rep. Lewis: I would say to Harry, and I know Harry very well, get together [with Jay Z], come together, break bread, have a glass of wine together, and talk it over. When you have differences it’s good to just talk and work it out. We don’t need to have public arguments about who’s doing what and who’s doing that. I think we all have an obligation to give something back to the larger community but who am I to say to someone how much you should give or what you should give? We need to look out for the common good. It’s part of our calling, part of our mission. We need to do more of that as Americans.
Book One of MARCH ends with a triumph. You help lead a series of sit-ins in Nashville that led to the desegregation of the city. How did it feel to be 19 or 20 and help produce a change like that?
Rep. Lewis: Book one of MARCH focuses on the early drama, the first arrests, the first beatings, the first mass arrests of the Civil Rights Movement, 89 of us were arrested. There was a terrible bombing of our attorney’s home, Z. Alexander Looby, and because of that we decided to march. It was so orderly and so peaceful it was almost like a silent, holy march. No singing, no one saying a word, people were just picking them up and laying them down almost 4,000 students down to City Hall. Diane Nash confronted the mayor of Nashville at City Hall and she said “Mr. Mayor, do you favor the desegregation of the lunch counters? Do you think it fair for the department stores to invite people in and then deny them service?” The mayor answered that he favored desegregation and the next day the local newspaper had a banner headline, “Mayor Favors Integration of Lunch Counters.” Two weeks later, we had a plan to desegregate the downtown lunch counters and restaurants. It became the first major victory in the sit-in movement and you need victories, you need something to point to so we can move on to other plans of action and to other campaigns.