Rep. John Lewis hopes to inspire today's youth with 'March'

October 21, 2013

LOS ANGELES — Congressman John Lewis’ wrists were restrained behind his back, and he was escorted into a police car last week, arrested during an immigration rally on Capitol Hill. (He was later released without charges after paying a $50 fine.) It was Lewis’ fifth arrest since he took office as a Democratic representative from Georgia in 1987 — twice at the South African Embassy protesting apartheid and twice in front of the Sudanese Embassy protesting genocide in Darfur.

Yet none of it is unfamiliar to Lewis, one of the last living leaders of the civil rights era, who was arrested more than 40 times during the historical period.

His first arrest was in Nashville on Feb. 27, 1960. He was arrested as part of sit-ins protesting segregation at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, an experience Lewis described as transformative in his new autobiographical graphic novel, "March," which debuted in August to rave reviews and has sat at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels for the last eight weeks.

"The first time I was arrested, I felt free. I felt liberated. I was not afraid. The fear was gone. So arrest me. What else are you going to do? Beat me?" said Lewis, who sat for an interview in July at Comic-Con, the annual pop-culture convention in San Diego. "As Dr. King said it, ‘It’s better to die a physical death than a psychological death.’ I’ve been truly free ever since."

Lewis, whom President Barack Obama has called "the conscience of the U.S. Congress," set out with two young white collaborators — co-writer Andrew Aydin and graphic artist Nate Powell — to tell the story of his life and involvement in the civil rights movement alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, as a way to connect his past with today’s students.

The book is a 121-page black-and-white comic, the first in a planned trilogy. The first volume centers on Lewis’ childhood and continues through lunch-counter sit-ins, his first arrest and the development of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Aimed at readers ages 13 and up, "March" is both informative and emotional. Since July, Lewis has relived his experiences at a dozen other pop-culture conventions around the country. "The response has been unbelievable," he said. "People are coming up and saying ‘Thank you’."


One early scene depicts Lewis’ first trip to New York, a journey by car with his uncle. They had to bring their own food, because no restaurants on their route would serve them below the Mason-Dixon Line; gas stops had to be planned meticulously until they reached Ohio. Powell conveys the stress of the situation via close-ups: the preteen Lewis, a bead of sweat dripping from his brow, his uncle with a grimace and a tight grip on the steering wheel.

Another segment portrays Lewis and hundreds of other activists attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7, 1965, as part of a march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. The day would become known as Bloody Sunday. Powell’s frames focus on armed National Guardsmen shouting through bullhorns, "This is an unlawful assembly!" One protester asks another: "Can you swim?"

"Nate made the bridge so real," said Lewis. "You felt like you were standing there again, that you can feel the bridge, touch the bridge. That you are standing on the bridge about to cross the Alabama River."


The kernel of the idea for "March" was planted during Lewis’ 2008 reelection campaign, when Aydin, then in his early 20s, was serving as the congressman’s press secretary. One day, Aydin mentioned that after the campaign was over, he planned to attend a comic-book convention.

"I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of those moments that change your life," said Aydin.

Lewis surprised Aydin, now 30, by telling him about "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," a 14-page comic book that illustrated King’s grass-roots efforts to protest bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., after Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white rider. The 10-cent leaflet, published in 1956 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, featured step-by-step instructions on nonviolent protest. It became a point of inspiration, spreading King’s methods to other Southern towns.

Lewis recalled first reading the comic when he was studying at Fisk University in Nashville and learning the methods of nonviolent protest. According to Lewis, it helped prompt the first sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960.

"The book on Martin Luther King sold me on the power of the comic book," said Lewis. "It became our bible, our gospel."

The November 2008 balloting not only returned Lewis to Capitol Hill but also, of course, saw the election of Obama. In January 2009, there was a luncheon for Obama after the inauguration. "The president is walking around shaking hands and greeting people, and I asked him to sign a photo with his likeness on it. And he wrote, ‘Because of you, John,’ and he gave me a hug," Lewis said. Aydin accompanied the congressman that day. "And all day he’s telling these stories — and I kept thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be the only one to experience this.’"

Aydin proposed the idea of turning Lewis’ life story into a comic book, one that connected to the present day and to the significance of Obama’s inauguration. The two decided it should both educate and inspire, in similar fashion to "The Montgomery Story."


"We wanted to teach people the discipline, the philosophy of the nonviolent protest," Aydin said. "So when they do it, they do it well."

In 2011, Top Shelf Comics said that it would be publishing "March" with Lewis and Aydin, but that no artist had yet been hired. That was all Southern-born graphic artist Powell needed to hear.

Between his established relationship with the publisher and a career in which he had already tackled civil rights in cartoon format with the award-winning book "The Silence of Our Friends," a semi-autobiographical tale set in 1967 Texas against the backdrop of the movement, the Arkansan was the man for the job.

The three began working to bring the project to fruition. Aydin would spend hours interviewing the congressman and transcribing his notes. The two then would work late at night and on weekends talking it out, weaving Lewis’ personal memories with research from the time. The duo would then send the script to Powell, who would hone the visual cues for the reader.

Though Powell, who won an Eisner Award for his 2008 graphic novel "Swallow Me Whole," is known for creating realistic drawings of events and interpreting things in imaginative, figurative ways, drawing historic characters such as King was more daunting than he anticipated. "The biggest challenge has been about accuracy and representation," said Powell. "The first time I depicted a scene where the congressman meets Dr. King, as soon as I was penciling the page, it occurred to me that I was about to spend the next several years drawing one of the most recognizable faces in human history."


Lewis’ hope is that "March" reaches the youth of today who are more interested in comic books then history lessons and inspires them to speak out against injustice in a similar way that "The Montgomery Story" did for him.

The congressman’s story has been relived in the last few months as the nation has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Lewis is the last living man to have spoken on the podium that day. His story also inspired actor David Oyelowo’s role in the current motion picture "The Butler," with the actor saying he relied on Lewis’ life story when he was creating his fictional character Louis Gaines, the activist son of Forest Whitaker’s White House butler, Cecil Gaines.


For Lewis, the attention is welcomed as another way to kindle activism in a new generation.

"For a lot of young people growing up in America, (the civil rights era) appears to be ancient history," he said. "I keep running into young people here who don’t know about it. And I thought this would be a way for them to understand what happened, to learn, to be inspired. And if they see something that’s not fair, that’s not right, not just, they can do something about it in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion. I just thought it was a good thing to do."




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