Author's Note: The recent controversy between President Donald Trump and Georgia Congressman John Lewis erupted several weeks after I began writing this post. This piece was and still is meant to highlight the increasing importance of the graphic novel/book as a narrative and dramatic medium. Artists like Nate Powell, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman have given us a "storyboard" of our times that rivals our best movies. March claims a proud place alongside those works.
Esteemed Congressman John Robert Lewis was still a teenager when political activist John Lawson, a committed pacifist, gave him a 10-cent comic book published in 1958 titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. It told the story of Rosa Parks and the non-violent bus boycott that sparked the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama’s capitol.
On the occasion of Parks' death in 2005, Lewis recalled his epiphany in an interview with National Public Radio:
When I was growing up in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery as a young child, I saw those signs that said `White men,' `Colored men,' `White women,' `Colored women.' And I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, `Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?' And they would say, `Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way. That's the way it is.' Rosa Parks got in the way. She inspired my generation to get in the way, and you had all of the necessary ingredients for the beginning of a very powerful movement.
Lewis went on to become a major figure in the fight to win civil and voting rights for African Americans in the 1960s. At 23, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963; he spoke just before King delivered “I Have A Dream.” Lewis served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963-1966. In April 1977, he was defeated by Wyche Fowler Jr. in a runoff election for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, a loss that seemed to dash forever the hopes he had for national politics. Nine years later, however, in another runoff (this time against fellow activist Julian Bond), Lewis was elected to that same Congressional District, where he has since been re-elected 14 times. Lewis is the sole living member of the “Big Six” Civil Rights activists.
And active he still is — at age 76. On June 22, 2016, he led a contingent of fellow Democrats in a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to protest the lack of Congressional action for “sensible” gun control.
The sit-in was one reason Lewis consented to appear on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Aug. 31, 2016. Halfway through the interview, Colbert produced the recently published graphic-book trilogy March, a history of Lewis’ life as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Colbert also shared a photo of Lewis being beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during an event that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Book One of March begins in 1940, when Lewis’ father purchases 110 acres of corn, cotton and peanut fields in “a little corner of Pike County, Alabama.” Book Three concludes with the Aug. 6, 1965, signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. The three volumes of March are framed by Lewis preparing for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. The first volume was published in August 2013; the third volume was published almost exactly three years later and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It was the first graphic book to receive this honor.
Here is Colbert’s interview with Lewis, which ends wonderfully with Lewis body-surfing through the audience, a rebuke to the nearly fatal beatings he sustained during the 1960s:
The University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science has produced a video about March that not only presents a window into the illustrations (by Nate Powell) and the text (by Andrew Aydin), but also demonstrates the visual parallels between the comic panels and news footage of the events they depict. Today, more than half a century later, the violence inflicted on non-violent demonstrators is still shocking.
What’s unique about this representation of a most turbulent time in American history is its singular focus on Lewis’ path as a dedicated practitioner of non-violence. He remained steadfast in this even as the era grew more and more violent and the unity of various civil-rights organizations began to fracture.
Shortly after the publication of March: Book Two in January 2015, Lewis, Aydin and Powell appeared in conversation with Rachel Maddow on her news program. The opening mash-up of panels from the book and news footage powerfully shows that even though the trilogy was originally conceived as a teaching tool for young people, it has much to offer adults, even those who lived through and participated in the events of that time. In the second half of the segment, the three men explain why the need to inform Americans about these events is still urgent.
In October 2013, Kentucky Educational Television sponsored an hour-long conversation between Lewis and Maddow before a live audience. This offered Lewis an opportunity to present a more detailed history of those times. Yes, it’s just talking heads, but what marvelous talk.
When March: Book Three was published on Aug. 2, 2016, it debuted at the top of the New York Times graphic books best-seller list. The trilogy held the top three positions for six weeks, a testament to its widespread, multi-generational appeal.
The time has long passed when the “literati” were able to dismiss graphic novels as comic books for grownups, even though Marvel now has its own movie studio and churns out fodder for testosterone-impacted young men whose appetite for screen mayhem seems to know no limits. This new generation of superhero movies seem to be almost retro live-action throwbacks to the primitive wham/bam comics of the 1940s and ’50s, leavened only by ever more amazing visual effects that substitute for character and narrative.
My own memory of “grown-up” comics goes back to my avid reading of Classics Illustrated, a series created by Albert Kanter and published from 1941-1971. The 169 issues covered such classic novels as Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities and Call of the Wild.
In 1980, Holocaust history came to the graphic book with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of a father-son relationship between Vladek, a cantankerous Holocaust survivor, and his cartoonist son, Art.
Almost as a footnoted nod to the popular power of the "comics" in the Colbert interview with Lewis, the talk show host produced a panel depicting him and Lewis as superheroes.
I was studying abroad in 1963 and was about to return to the States when the March on Washington took place. Amid the sensuous distractions of art and music in Vienna, the turmoil gripping our country had scarcely rippled my consciousness.
A few months later, in the middle of my fall semester at Loyola University, President Kennedy was assassinated, and the struggle for human rights in America became even more critical; we were a nation broken. During the next few years, the laser focus on civil rights seemed the only beacon against the ensuing darkness that became the Vietnam War.
Though the March trilogy concludes before that inferno burned another deep wound into the soul of America’s youth, the struggle for civil rights continued — and it continues today. March is not a nostalgic look at the past. In the film industry, the “Oscars So White” controversy revealed how raw the fight for true racial equality still is. In our body politic, the sad revelations of ethnic and racial hatred that erupted during the recent Presidential campaign also confirm that there is still much work to do.
Early last month, NAACP National President Cornell W. Brooks and others were arrested during a sit-in in the Alabama offices of then US Senator Jeff Sessions. They were protesting Donald Trump’s nomination of the senator for U.S. Attorney General, the country’s chief law-enforcement officer, because of Sessions’ deeply documented history as an opponent of the Civil Rights Movement. This highlights just how relevant March is to our current political discourse and suggests that non-violent protest may be our best hope for resolving our still much unresolved racial history.