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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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’."
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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
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?"
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."
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
didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of those
moments that change your life," said Aydin.
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.
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.
book on Martin Luther King sold me on the power of the
comic book," said Lewis. "It became our bible,
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.’"
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."
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wanted to teach people the discipline, the philosophy of
the nonviolent protest," Aydin said. "So when
they do it, they do it well."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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Lewis, the attention is welcomed as another way to
kindle activism in a new generation.
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."