By Ean Marshall
In 1955, when Democratic Congressman John Robert Lewis was 15 years old and in 10th grade, he heard about the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus and heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over news video. Both figures inspired him to “Find a way to get into the way,” he said in a speech at Fantom Comics. “So I went off to school and got into trouble. But I call it good trouble. Necessary trouble. And I’ve been getting into trouble ever since.”
Congressman Lewis, who represents Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives, tells the story of that trouble, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, in his graphic novel trilogy March. Written by both Lewis and Andrew Aydin, one of his policy advisors, and illustrated by artist Nate Powell, March is an autobiography of Lewis’s life before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. March: Book One, which was released on August 13, 2013, received positive critical praise, such as being a #1 New York Times and Washington Post Bestseller, and as the first graphic novel ever to win a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
To celebrate the release of March: Book Two last week, Congressman Lewis and Aydin stopped by Fantom Comics in Dupont Circle Sunday afternoon to speak about the book and to sign copies. As both men came up the steps of the crowded store, they personally shook hands with all of the customers waiting in line, thanking them for stopping by. Before they sat down to sign, they both said a few words about their experiences.
When Lewis was eight years old and growing up in rural Troy, Ala. on 110 acres of land his father bought for $300 “which my family still owns to this day,” he wanted to be a minister. To practice, he used the chickens he raised as his own congregation, joking that “some of those chickens tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me in Congress. Some of those chickens were just a little bit more productive.”
After this comic anecdote, Lewis then turned to the serious memories of segregation, like the “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs, and the movie theater in Troy where black children had to go upstairs. When he asked his parents why, he recalled them saying, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, Don’t get in trouble.”
But he got into the good kind of trouble by serving as the president of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and becoming one of 13 original Freedom Riders that took a Greyhound bus up to Washington DC in May 1961, remarking “The same year that Barack Obama was born, black people and white people couldn’t legally be seated on a bus together.” This notion is visually realized the graphic novel by framing Lewis’s experiences as memories while going to the January 2009 inauguration of President Obama.
On the way to the capital along with the other Freedom Riders, Lewis recalled being beat up along with his white seatmate by members of the local Ku Klux Klan for entering a white waiting room, left in a pool of blood. Touchingly, in February of 2009, one of his attackers, along with his 40-year-old son, came to Lewis’s office and asked if he could be forgiven. With both men crying, Lewis accepted his apology and forgave him as “I started crying, and the three of us hugged.”
Lewis was reluctant at the idea of turning his life story into a comic book when Aydin suggested it after a reelection campaign. But then he remembered buying a comic book in 1956 called “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” for only 10 cents. Holding up a copy, he explained, “14 pages. This little book started me on a path of commitment to the way of peace. The way of love. And the way of nonviolence.”
Aydin humorously replied “You sir, did the hard part”, admitting that it was a little idea that came into his head that day. Aydin was inspired to tell Lewis’s story because superhero comics “were stories of people who wanted a better world for no other reason than that’s what they believed in. So it seems almost self-evident that John should be a comic book hero.” He thought the idea was still a little crazy, but when a conservative newspaper reporter told him he had bought the book for his nine-year old son and “he’s marching around in his Sunday suit demanding equality for everyone,” Aydin realized he had something special. Aydin concluded by saying that “If you are young, you have the power to change the world more so than other being. Young people are the only ones to save us from ourselves.”