John Lewis on 'March' and revisiting the Civil Rights movement in 2015
It’s been a year and a half since Congressman John Lewis, together with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, released their landmark graphic novel March: Book One. The start of a trilogy about the life of Congressman Lewis—a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who spoke from the same podium as Dr. Martin Luther King on the day in 1963 when the latter delivered his classic ”I Have a Dream” speech—March took the world by surprise. Acclaimed by the comics press and social justice activists alike, it was an engaging and accessible work of nonfiction about one of the most important moments in American history.
This week, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell return with March: Book Two. It is, according to Congressman Lewis, a very different experience—while Book One served as an introduction to his life and how he learned about nonviolent activism and civil disobedience, Book Two‘s purpose is to show readers “the path, the distance that I have traveled to make our country a better place,” says the Congressman. “It is drama. It is real.”
A lot has happened between the release of Book One in August 2013, and this week’s release of Book Two. Unrest over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., have brought racial issues into sharp focus, and the past 12 months have seen increasing attention paid to matters of racial, gender, and marriage equality. With the Academy Award-nominated film Selma now in theaters—a story in which a young John Lewis plays an important role—revisiting the story of African-American citizens’ struggle for civil rights has never felt more timely.
Congressman Lewis is aware of this, and it’s his hope that people will take the time to reflect on what came before. “This book is a guide, we can use it,” says Lewis. “This is what people tried to do, this is what people did in the late ’50s and the ’60s to try to make things better.”
“Everyone needs to know this story, and the schools aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching this story,” says Andrew Aydin, Congressman Lewis’ aide and co-writer of March. He cites the most recent Teaching the Movement study, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that looks at the state of Civil Rights education in the 50 states. Most are failing.
“I think it’s deliberate, I think it’s systematic,” says Aydin. “Not because they don’t think the story’s worthwhile, but because it’s dangerous. If you teach young people how or why they should utilize nonviolence, you’re giving them a tool to help themselves and to change the status quo. And that’s dangerous to the people who have power, who don’t want things to change.”
But if there’s one thing that March makes very clear, it’s that nonviolent protest is long, difficult work that requires training and persistence.
“What I think has become more and more important for me to try to bring to light is just the fact that this is a lot of people putting in a lot of hours,” says artist Nate Powell. “Having a lot of meetings and printing a lot of paper. You know, pushing that end of activism as much as their putting their lives on the line in the streets. The two are inseparable.”
The human cost of the Civil Rights Movement is something that Book Two delves into deeply, beginning with the 1961 Freedom Rides that were met with mob violence unchecked by authorities in several states, and on through the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.—an incident that is depicted early on in Selma.
“I tear up sometimes,” says Congressman Lewis. “To see how we were treated, how we were beaten…. When we left Washington at that bus station on May 4th, 1961, we were very hopeful, very optimistic that we would be able to make it through the south in a very orderly, peaceful nonviolent fashion. But we were met by violence, arrests, and jail.”
According to Nate Powell, the point of March “is not pulling any punches, to just lay things bare.” For an artist responsible for depicting some of the ugliest parts of our national history, it is difficult, sometimes disturbing work.
“A lot of my experience drawing the darker parts of March comes to thinking about raising my child in such a bleak and intimidating world, and trying to present this history in a way that remains relevant and human,” says Powell. “but sometimes it just really gets me as a dad, seeing what we drag the rest of humanity into.”
For Lewis, Aydin, and Powell, March’s power is in the relevance it has today. Congressman Lewis was inspired by a comic book that was used to recruit and train activists in the ways of nonviolence during the movement’s early days. Now, it’s their hope that March will do the same.
“People will have the opportunity to pick up the book, and read, and hopefully be inspired,” says Congressman Lewis. “Not just in Ferguson or New York, but all across America.”
“We modeled everything about this on something that has worked before,” says Andrew Aydin. “If we do this right, and things keep going, and people keep helping us like this, we really might be able to teach this generation how to use civil disobedience in the most effective way. And they might actually be able to bring about some serious change.”
March: Book Two will be available Jan. 20, 2014.