Five summers ago, at San Diego Comic-Con International, Rep. John Lewis donned the type of clothes and gear he was wearing a half-century earlier when he was beaten trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the day he thought he was going to die.
The journey from 1965 Selma to 2015 San Diego was long, but the Georgia congressman’s belief remained steadfast: For human rights to be defended, each succeeding generation must learn the history of how they are won.
With that mission in mind, Lewis, then the author of a graphic novel in his 70s (his latest illustrated book had been released a half-year earlier), walked onto the floor of the 2015 Comic-Con – that teeming festival of comics and pop culture – to cosplay as his 25-year-old self: trench coat, shirt and tie, and a backpack that held fruit, a toothbrush and books.
In 1965, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Lewis – who died July 17 at 80 – led about 600 nonviolent marchers into the maw of state troopers’ nightsticks and tear gas. In 2015, to summon that historic memory, Lewis led a procession through the large bayside convention hall, holding a child’s hand in each of his. “I felt very, very moved just by being with the kids,” he said. “As you know, the civil rights movement was often led by the children, and the young people.”
The reason Lewis marched at Comic-Con was the same one that spurred him to create his best-selling civil rights memoir – the graphic-novel trilogy “March” (Top Shelf) – with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell: To engage young people, you must often dramatize history.
Lewis knew this firsthand. As a young man, he first learned about nonviolent protest through a comic book. Born in Alabama, Lewis had grown up reading newspaper comics, and was primed to absorb illustrated lessons when in 1957, the Fellowship of Reconciliation published “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a brightly colored 16-page comic book that centered on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.
After reading that story, Lewis eventually became drawn to the nonviolent protest movement as a chief organizer. By 1963, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.
Nearly five decades later, he decided to create his own memoir in the form of a graphic novel after Aydin, then an aide in Lewis’ office, was teased by colleagues about going to Comic-Con. Lewis told his staff about his own profound history with comics. The congressman and the aide were inspired to collaborate.
The result is a masterpiece of storytelling. “March” traces Lewis’ path from a childhood in the segregated South, sermonizing to chickens – who listened to him better than some members of Congress, as he later liked to joke – to his first meeting, at the age of 18, with King, to the perilous Freedom Rides, his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and his ascension to one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized the 1963 March.
Powered partly by Powell’s virtuosic art, the narrative builds to the brutal showdown in Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. (Which prompts the question: Isn’t it time that the Edmund Pettus Bridge be renamed the John R. Lewis Bridge?)
The “March” books have won prizes – a Special Recognition award for Book One from the RFK Foundation, a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Book Three – becoming a staple in school curricula and libraries. Lewis toured comics conventions and bookstores, cheered as a hero whose books were read by the children he sought to educate.
Many people still think of comic books as pure escapism. Lewis knew they can be a captivating way to deliver sometimes brutal realism.
“March” was created to “get young people – another generation – to feel the hope, the dreams, the aspirations of a people that wanted to be free,” the congressman told me during an interview in 2013, shortly after the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary. “What’s it like to be involved in a nonviolent workshop; to be involved with social drama; to experience or to feel someone beating you, spitting on you, or pouring hot water or hot coffee on you – to be arrested and to be jailed?”
Lewis said he wanted readers “to feel it.”
In 2014, when I was moderating a discussion with Lewis and Aydin at a comics convention in Washington, Lewis said that part of the message of “March” was to encourage young readers to get into “good trouble – necessary trouble.” And he added: “I am so hopeful. I am so optimistic for the future.”
Which is why he always knew that “March” was more than a storytelling. In Lewis’ hands, it was a torch passed.
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