Civil Rights Icon John Lewis Inspires With Graphic Novel “March” [Interview]

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It’s not possible to list all of John Lewis’s accomplishments here, but I’ll see what I can do. He’s one of the Big Six of the Civil Rights Movement, he spoke at the March on Washington when he was only 23, and he’s been a Congressman since 1987. Now he’s publishing a graphic novel memoir trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement, and the first book, “March,” hits stores on August 13.

Believe it or not, comic books were influential in the Civil Rights Movement, like the 1958 comic “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Congressman Lewis’s staff member, Andrew Aydin, has written his Masters thesis on this very subject, and in 2008 the then 24-year-old approached his boss with a suggestion: Write a new comic about the Civil Rights Movement. The idea was to teach more people about what had happened and inspire a whole new young generation to stand up for their rights.

Congressman Lewis, who is as passionate about people’s rights as ever, was all for the idea. Andrew became his co-writer, and Nate Powell, artist for the Civil Rights graphic novel “Silence of Our Friends,” came on board to provide the art.

I sat down with the Civil Rights icon to talk about the book, what he wants readers to take away from it and how young people can make a stand against the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

ACT: Why did you choose to tell your story in graphic novel form?

LEWIS: Well, Andrew, my staff person, came to me and mentioned the fact that he had been reading “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” and suggested that we should do a graphic novel. It is a way to tell the story of the movement to young people and people not so young, to get more people to understand what happened and how it happened. Long before we got involved in sitting in, or going on the Freedom Rides, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, or the March on Washington, we prepared ourselves. We studied the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. Many of us grew to accept the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, as the way of life, the way of living. We wanted to find a way to bring it alive.

ACT: Many young people can’t even fathom the world of segregation and bigotry you grew up in. What do you want readers to learn from this book and take away from it?

LEWIS: I want young readers to understand that another generation of young people saw those signs — white men, colored men, white women, colored women — who tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination, came to that point where they said, “We won’t take it anymore.” When I was growing up, I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, “Why?” They said, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way; don’t get in trouble.” But I was inspired to get in the way. I hope “March” will inspire young people and people not so young to stand up, speak up, speak out and not be afraid.

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ACT: You’ve accomplished so many things in your life! What are you most proud of?

LEWIS: I’m very proud to see the distance we’ve come, the progress we’ve made, that those signs are gone and will not return. The only place we’ll see those signs together are in a book, in a museum, on a video. And we are different people; we are better people. Our country is better, but we still have a distance to go. We still have more bridges to cross. We must engage in more marches.

ACT: How can young people get more involved in the political process, especially in terms of standing up for civil rights?

LEWIS: When young people, or any people, see something that is not right, something that is wrong, something that is not just, they must go forth. It can be in a school, in a neighborhood, in a town, in a state, in our country. If we want to save the planet, have clean air, clean water, food safety, if we want to bring about a world community at peace with itself, we all must be involved.

Whatever you do, do it with a sense of peace, with love, and the ways of nonviolence. If you want to create what we call the beloved community, then the means and methods must be one of love. We must respect the worth and dignity of every human being.

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ACT: Many people are upset about the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, and this is something very personal for you. What do you think our readers should know about the Voting Rights Act? What can young people do if they want to join you in showing their disapproval of the recent ruling?

LEWIS: We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we’re hoping that hundreds or thousands of young people will come to Washington and protest the Supreme Court’s decision. Young people who may not be even old enough to register and vote must engage their local and national elected officials. During the ’60s, we didn’t have all this technology, but they can use social media to communicate, to help organize, to help mobilize. Say to the country, say to president, say to members of Congress, “We don’t like it. We’re not going to take it.”

It’s my hope that “March” will inspire another generation to get out there to push and pull, and really be maladjusted to the problems. Dr. King used to say that we had to be maladjusted to evil. We cannot be at home with it.

John Lewis’ “The March” can be pre-ordered, and make sure you catch Congressman Lewis on “The Colbert Report” August 13.

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The King Center

The King Center

Learn more about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement at The King Center. There is still work to be done.