Lewis does not usually smile for the camera.
Paradoxically enough, he laughs when this is pointed to
him during a telephone interview. "A lot of people
tell me that," he says.
the flyleaf to "March: Book One," the graphic
memoir authored by Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate
Powell, there is a photo typical of Lewis, a civil
rights icon and Georgia congressman. The Capitol dome at
his back, he faces the camera with a dogged expression
as if the photo session were just one more thing he has
to get through.
tendency toward dour portraits contrasts sharply with an
image of Lewis captured 52 years ago when he was
arrested as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi ó one of
the earliest of what would eventually be more than 40
arrests. This image is Lewisí mug shot.
no one ever looks good on his mug shot. Michael Jackson
looks like a frightened dowager. Charlie Sheen looks
like heís trying to zap the camera with his eye beams.
Randy Travis looks like he might kill you and eat your
heart. But Lewis, 21 years old, faces the camera with a
smirk. There is in his face a righteous satisfaction
that says the forces of institutionalized bigotry have
lost their power to terrify him. The smirk tells
Mississippi and all the structure of white supremacy
behind it: do what youíve got to do.
this feeling," he says, "how much more you
going to do us? And I was prepared for it. I was ready
for it. The very first time I was arrested, I felt free.
I felt liberated."
journey toward that moment of personal liberation ó
and beyond ó is the subject of "March," the
first of a planned trilogy of graphic novels covering
Lewisí journey from a precocious boy who preached to
the chickens on his familyís farm in Pike County,
Ala., through the heat, hope and danger of the civil
rights years, to his present station as an elder
statesman of the movement and a member of
who published the traditional autobiography
"Walking With the Wind" in 1998, is not the
first person who comes to mind when one thinks of people
who write graphic novels. He says the idea was born five
years ago when Aydin, one of his aides, announced to
general derision in the office that he was headed to
Comic-Con, the massive comic book convention. The
congressman quieted the ridicule, reminding his staffers
that a comic book released a few years after Martin
Luther King came to international prominence ó Martin
Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story ó was pivotal
in spreading the word about the Atlanta preacher and his
philosophy of passive resistance.
read that book," says Lewis, "and other young
people read that book, and it lead to the sit-in
movement. As a matter of fact, the four students (who
started the movement when they sat down at a lunch
counter) in Greensboro, N.C., got a copy, and they read
encouraged, Aydin pushed his boss to consider telling
his own story in the comic book format. It took a few
years, but Lewis finally said yes.
result is a new version of an old story, the unadorned
simplicity of Lewis and Aydinís narrative neatly
complemented by the unadorned simplicity of Powellís
drawings. There is an understated power in these pages.
is another means of reaching a larger audience,"
says Lewis, "to get people to understand and to
know what happened and how it happened, trying to make
it real, not just to children and young people, but even
adults. Many of the people in America today were not
even born 40 and 50 years ago, and with the comic book
form, it just dramatized it. It makes it so plain and so
real to people to see what happened."
publicís response, says Lewis, has been gratifying.
"We had a writer who passed a copy of the book to
his nine-year-old son and according to the writer, the
day after his son finished reading the book, he went up
to his room and put on a suit and put on a hat and said,
ĎIím ready to march for equality.í "
is a heartening anecdote that doesnít quite mask a
sobering reality. American children and even many
American adults are startlingly ignorant about this
history. Says Lewis, "I donít think weíve done
a good job, a great job in informing and educating our
children to what happened and how it happened. Some
people may think, ĎWhy should we repeat this? Why
should we tell the story?í Itís important for the
story to be told."
Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published
a review quantifying by letter grade how good a job the
country does in teaching the Civil Rights Movement.
Thirty-five states got Fís. This includes 16 that do
not require any instruction at all about the movement.
Four states got Dís. Only three ó Florida, Alabama
and New York ó got Aís.
children do not learn what happened in Montgomery,
Birmingham and Nashville not so long ago. They donít
learn that John Lewis had his skull fractured protesting
for the right to vote in Selma. They donít even learn
that the right to vote, along with the right to use the
public library, the public water fountain, the public
park, the public movie theater, the public restaurant,
were severely curtailed or outright denied for African
as they look on in their ignorance, the Voting Rights
Act is gutted, the Civil Rights Act is attacked by a
prominent Congressman, southern states pass restrictive
new voting laws and the machinery of mass incarceration
hums along efficiently.
who grew up when racism was coded by signs reading
"Whites Only" and "Colored Only,"
finds himself in the unenviable position of having lived
long enough to see the work of a lifetime eroded.
see these invisible signs," he says. "In the
book, you see the White and Colored signs. I tell people
the only places our children see signs today will be in
a museum or in a video or in a book. But the invisible
signs still exist in American society because the scars
and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in almost
every corner of our society."
of the most obvious of those invisible signs is planted
in front of the white mansion of Pennsylvania Avenue
where the nationís first African-American president
lives with his wife and their two daughters. Says Lewis,
"I think a lot of the problems the president is
having ó he may not admit it ó I think itís
racial. I think a lot of people do not feel at home with
the idea of an African-American as president, an
African-American family living in the White
other words, Barack Obama, having inspired the "birther"
movement, the Muslim rumors and a million jokes about
Kenya, is the latest iteration of the old dance of
African-American history: two steps forward, one step
back. Look at the milestone we have reached. Look at all
the new tribulations we have found.
people, says Lewis, must be taught these things. They
cannot afford the luxury of believing the fight for
African-American civil rights is just some artifact of
history. "When something happens to some of our
younger people today, theyíre taken aback, theyíre
shocked, they canít believe it. One thing Iíve tried
to say over the years: the struggle is a constant
struggle. Itís not a struggle for just a few days a
few weeks or few months or a few years. Itís a
struggle of a lifetime."