John Lewis marches on: "Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America"

Salon talks to Rep. Lewis and the "March" team about Book Three of his Civil Rights-era graphic memoir series

Published August 8, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

 (Top Shelf Productions)
(Top Shelf Productions)

“How could our quest for human dignity spawn such evil?”

That’s a question posed by Congressman John Lewis on an early page of his new graphic memoir, “March: Book Three.” The year is 1963. The place: Birmingham, Alabama. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing, and so is the violent counter-movement to snuff it out. The 16th Street Baptist Church has been bombed, claiming the lives of four little girls. And this was not an isolated incident. When describing the events of 1964, Lewis and his co-authors — the acclaimed graphic novelist, Nate Powell, and Lewis’s Digital Director and Policy Advisor, Andrew Aydin — write, “In Mississippi that summer we suffered more than 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, and 30 bombings.” On another page, Lewis, who was then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), says, “The news from Washington seemed so far away – we were in the middle of a war.”

Book Three is the violent, yet triumphant, capstone to a trilogy that serves two narrative purposes. On one level, it is an autobiography of a man who, as the book’s promo copy notes, rose from an “Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.”

But the books are also a sweeping visual history of the Civil Rights Movement offering stories of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other characters, including Alabama Governor George Wallace, who, in a speech depicted in 2015’s “March: Book Two,” calls for “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” By the end of Book Three — and after countless scenes of beatings, arrests, murders, and ongoing, defiant protests and sit-ins — the Voting Rights Act has been signed, and Lewis is handed one of the ceremonial pens by President Lyndon Johnson. “It was the last day of the movement as I knew it,” Lewis says. In another scene, at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the newly sworn president hugs a teary-eyed Lewis and hands him a note that reads, “Because of, you, John.”

The March trilogy is being heralded as one of the most important graphic novels released in some time. It has received a coveted Eisner Award. It is being assigned in New York City public schools. Its artwork was recently described by one awestruck Washington Post reviewer as “profoundly virtuosic art that measures up to the content of the characters, and the import of the story.”

It is, in short, a book that should be at top of anyone’s reading list. Salon recently spoke via phone with the three authors.

What do you guys hope readers take away from this story? 

Congressman John Lewis: It is our hope that when people read “March” — Book One, Book Two, and Book Three — that they will understand that another generation of people, especially young people, were deeply inspired by the work of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others. So they studied the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, and they stood up and they spoke up and they spoke out in a nonviolent fashion to change America forever. And [as a result] our country is a better country and we are better people. [These activists] didn’t become bitter or hostile. They didn’t hate. They understood what Dr. King said when he said, “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

Although this is a trilogy about nonviolent action, these are very violent books. Time and again, readers see awful violence and bloodshed. Are there any readers who are too young for the books?

Andrew Aydin: It’s important to realize that the series actually grows with the reader. "March: Book One" is a great introduction for kids as young as eight or nine years old. But then they grow with the reader. Book Two is bigger, Book Three is even bigger. And they grow more violent and more confrontational. So, much like people started off, and everyone read “The Sorcerer’s Stone” for Harry Potter, Book One is meant to be that book that allows everybody to get introduced, and then each child can read [the others] whenever they’re ready.

What do you think is gained by telling this story in a graphic novel format? What power is achieved that perhaps can’t be conveyed with just words or even with moving pictures?

Nate Powell: I know “accessibility” is a term that’s kind of thrown around wantonly today, especially with talking about visual media. But I think that the strength of comics [is how they] really allow you to transcend those last barriers between a reader absorbing the information of an experience, and a reader being able to project themselves into the [experience of the] people about whom they’re reading.

I knew a bunch of this stuff to a certain extent before I started working on “March.” But it wasn’t until I really read [Lewis’s memoir] “Walking With the Wind,” and I was doing my own research, and then I was getting research from Andrew and Congressman Lewis …along the way, that it wasn’t until the drawing board, really processing all of this and putting it out in a way that I could absorb, that this really was something that at its core was being pushed along by 20-year-olds and 25-year-olds.

And so drawing that as a 31- or a 35-year-old, and [also] being a dad and having a four-year-old daughter and watching her grow into this world she’ll inherit, being able to envision her as a 15-year old or a 20-year-old with a sense of justice and fairness — these are concepts which are very clear to me as a dad and as a visual artist. So I think being able to identify with young people and…their capacity to change the world and shake things up. I think that’s the greatest strength.

Aydin: We’re [also] trying to talk to a generation who grew up on the Internet. They’re digital natives, and, essentially, they speak through sequential storytelling. I mean, a good comic-book panel is not that much different than a meme. And so if we’re going to speak to them, we have to do it in their language. And that’s why it’s important that we use comics.

Speaking of comics, Andrew, I’m fascinated by the connection between these “March” books and a comic book from the 1950s about Martin Luther King. Can you talk a bit about that connection?

Aydin: Sure. “March” was inspired by “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” I actually first heard about that comic from John Lewis, who told me that it played an important role in the movement. And so once he told me about that, it made me start thinking, “Well, why doesn’t John Lewis write his own comic book?” We knew “The Montgomery Story” was about the Montgomery bus boycott, but so much happened afterwards and I‘d never seen anything [about] that [portrayed] in comics form. I’d barely heard about it in school.

So, from that point, actually I went on to write my graduate thesis on the [“Montgomery Story”] comic book itself. It was the first long-form history that was ever written about it. And it’s how I found out Martin Luther King actually helped edit “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” We found the letter with his edits. And it made me feel some kinship with Dr. King, actually — imagining him poring over a comic book script. But really the thing that was so interesting to us was how they used the comic book from December of 1957 to the mid-1960s. It ended up inspiring some of the earliest acts of civil disobedience of the movement. And so many of the young people read it. So what my graduate thesis ended up becoming was a proof of concept for us that a comic book could work in that way.

Representative Lewis, I follow you on social media, and you’re often posting photographs and stories from the Civil Rights era with the hashtag “#goodtrouble.” For folks who aren’t familiar with that concept, what is “good trouble?”

Lewis: When I was growing up in rural Alabama, as a young child, about 50 miles from Montgomery, and we would visit the little town of Troy, or visit Montgomery or Tuskegee, I would see the signs that said, “WHITE MEN — COLORED MEN,” “WHITE WOMEN — COLORED WOMEN.” You’d go downtown on a Saturday afternoon to the theaters, and all of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony, and all of the little white children went downstairs to the first floor. And I would come home and say to my mother and father and my grandparents, “Why?” “Why this?” “Why that?” And they would just tell me, “That’s just the way it is! Don’t get in the way. Don’t cause trouble.”

I met Rosa Parks when I was 17. I met Dr. King when I was 18. These two individuals inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble. So I got in good trouble, necessary trouble. And “March” is saying to young people and people not so young, “Going through history, you can get in trouble. But let it be good trouble, necessary trouble, to change things.” When you see something, and it’s not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something about it.

Scenes of President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 are interspersed throughout these books. They form a kind of backbone for the story. Why did you choose that event for that purpose? 

Aydin: We chose to frame “March” around the inauguration of Barack Obama because it was such an important moment in the story of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, but it was a major down payment. And I think all too often when we tell the story of the movement, people say, “Well, what’s changed?” And the Congressman often says, “Well, come walk in my shoes and I will show you change.” And that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to show that you should be hopeful, you should be optimistic, but you have to be consistent and persistent, because it’s not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It’s the struggle of a lifetime. And so you’re going to have to put in 40 or 50 years to reach that high-water mark.

But I think also there’s another part of this that’s coming into play, which is that there will be a generation of students who go to school and never know what it’s like to live in a world where we haven’t had an African American president. And so part of it is putting down a marker to remind them what was given, what had to be done in order to make that a reality.

The end of the third book is complicated. On one hand you have that triumphant moment of Obama’s inauguration. On the other hand you discuss how, right after the the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, “the violence didn’t stop.” And you tell this anecdote about these Civil Rights volunteers who were gunned down. What is the final message of the book? What kind of a note do you think it ends on?

Powell: One of our priorities when doing “March” is to sort of undo what we feel is the disservice done by what we call the Nine Words Problem. Which is that most American kids, whatever they do learn about the movement, especially in school, is usually limited to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream.” And so there’s sort of a layer of unreality; there’s not a sense of continuity. Not just [a lack of acknowledging the] millions of people involved — the loss, the sacrifice — but also the grating, infuriating, long hard work of getting stuff done and still not actually solving the problem at the end of the movie. We wanted to emphasize that this was not a clean victory, and this is not a final victory. This is something that continues to this day.

Representative Lewis, this book is incredibly inspiring. For the person who reads it and says, “OK, this story has moved me so much, I want to do something today, in 2016,” what would you tell them to do? If someone is motivated to act, what is the next step after putting down this book?

Lewis: I would say to a young person: continue to study. Study what is taking place in your community, in your neighborhood, maybe at your school. Help organize…groups. And be prepared to organize nonviolent workshops — a teach-in around what is happening in America today. Organize your teachers and schoolmates, and be prepared to engage in some action.

And during this election year people should organize people to just turn up and participate in the democratic process. Knock on doors. They may not be old enough to register to vote, but they can urge their teachers, their parents, their grandparents, their mothers, their fathers, and others to get out and vote. I happen to believe that this election year is…one of the most important elections that we’re going to face in a very long time. I know we hear from time to time that every election is important. This one is very, very important.

I’ve said it in the past and I’ll say it again today: the vote is precious; it’s almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society. People must understand that people were beaten, arrested, jailed, and some people were murdered, while attempting to register to vote, or to get others to register to vote.

People are of course going to connect these books with the movement taking place right now, in 2016, in cities and town across the country – the Black Lives Matter movement. What would you say to people curious about that connection?

Aydin: I think this is essential reading to understand the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it’s also essential reading for the Black Lives Matter movement, so that they understand the political context that they’re engaging in. When we went to Comic-Con for the first time to debut “March: Book One” in 2013, I made a joke. I said, “Did any of you guys watch ‘Battlestar Galactica?’ You might know this quote: ‘All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.‘”

In some sense, we watched exactly that happen. [That Comic-Con moment] was just a few weeks after [the U.S. Supreme Court] struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, a few months after Trayvon Martin had been murdered. And since then we’ve seen a number of shootings, murders, unfortunate incidents, disenfranchised voters. So I think it’s not just for the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s for everyone. We all have to understand what happened then, so we can understand what’s happening now.

There’s so much trauma described in this book, both personally for you, Representative Lewis, and generally, violent events. For example the bombing of the church in Birmingham that took the lives of those four girls. Was this a difficult story for you to tell? To go back in time and put yourself through these events again?

Lewis: Well, with Andrew writing and researching and Nate drawing the images, and especially when I went through Book Three, I pick it up and look at the images — I have to put it down. I remember being at the church a few hours after the church was bombed in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was very hard and very difficult to stand on that corner across the street from the church. Or to go Mississippi and search for the three civil rights workers who came up missing. There is a lot of trauma. To see the drawings of people being tear-gassed and beaten on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge. That’s hard. To know that Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway retuning from an NAACP meeting in downtown Jackson. And then you go back there years later, and the blood is still on the driveway. They cannot wash it away. 

In some respects I was reminded of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Certainly the graphic-novel formats are similar, but there was also a similar gravity to it, a similar sense of bearing witness and entering something into the historical record. Was that book on your mind when you set out to make this trilogy?

Aydin: So you’re the third person today to compare it to “Maus.” And this is the best thing I’ve heard in my entire life. You start a project like this and “Maus” is the high-water mark. That’s what you aspire to be like. And I think right now you’ve got, sort of the Big Three of comics and graphic novels: “Maus, “Persepolis” and “Fun Home.” I think people are starting to add “March” to that. I’ve heard that from several professors, several reviewers now. That’s where it needs to be. Because the Civil Rights Movement needs to be told on such a scale, and read on such a scale, so that it is essential comic reading for anyone who picks up a comic or graphic novel.

This is a really tough and tumultuous time for race relations in this country. Congressman Lewis, are you worried? Are you hopeful? What do you think are some of the answers to some of the really deep divisions we still see today?

Lewis: In spite of all of the things, the issues, that we may be confronting today, I’m very hopeful, very optimistic about the future. That’s why I want to see people pick up “March.” [They will see] we never gave up. We didn’t get lost in a sea of despair. We kept the faith. We kept pushing and pulling. We kept marching. And we made some progress. And when people tell me nothing has changed, I just feel like saying, “Come and walk in my shoes.” Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime. But I truly believe that one day we will get there, we will arrive. And if we do it right in America, maybe, just maybe, we can serve as a model for the rest of the world.

One last question: how did you end up landing on that one-word title?

Aydin: That was me. You know, I spent almost two years working on this book before we ever had a publisher, before we ever had a title. And when you’re reading it, and you’re writing it, and you’re ingesting it, sometimes a single word just comes up over and over and over again. And if you’re trying to capture the essence of what it is you’re trying to tell, you don’t have a whole lot of space. And ‘march’ so wholly and completely captures what we’re trying to say. Because it’s not as if it’s telling you about a single march. It’s an imperative. It is an order. It is someone telling you to do something — even yourself urging you to do something. And so, we start the book on March 7, 1965 with a march to Selma, Alabama. And, if anything, it’s telling each and every person to get up, put one foot in front of another, and to march.

There was a quote that stuck with us this whole time, which is that “there is no sound more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.” That’s a Dr. King quote, loosely paraphrased. That’s the idea. 

Lewis: This book, in my estimation, is a road map. It is a change agent. It is saying to people, “This is a way. This is a path you must take if you want to move from one point to another point. If you want to make it down this very long and troublesome road, follow this path. Follow this message. Follow this map. And you will get there some day.”

By Philip Eil

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil

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