Congressman John Lewis’ Life of Civil Rights Leadership Chronicled in Graphic Novels

December 08, 2015

You might not think that civil rights and graphic novels go together, but following the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, who personally edited a 16-page comic book on the Montgomery bus boycott more than a half century ago, Georgia Congressman John Lewis has turned to the popular literary form in a series of highly regarded books chronicling his early years of Freedom Rides, sit-ins and marches with King in the 1960s.

Lewis came to Columbia on Tuesday to discuss the graphic novels, titled March, and the events that inspired them, in a panel sponsored by the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center. Speaking from the stage at the Italian Academy, Lewis told the audience of nearly 200 about growing up in his segregated hometown of Troy, Alabama, where signs marked “Whites” and “Colored” kept water fountains, waiting rooms and even the public library racially separate. “I came home and asked my parents, “Why?” and they said 'don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.’\"

Then, in 1955, he heard of Rosa Parks, who had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. He listened to King speaking on the radio and became inspired. “I got in the way, I got into trouble—what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said.

The first book describes the events leading to the 1965 journey from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capital, when tens of thousands of people marched in support of voting rights for African Americans. The second describes the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., at which King gave his “I have a dream” speech.” Lewis was a leader at both and at Selma was nearly beaten to death on the first attempted march that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Although Lewis had written an autobiography, he hadn’t addressed the marches on their own until one of his staffers, Andrew Aydin, who handles social media for the congressman’s office, suggested writing a graphic novel. Others scoffed at the idea, but Lewis recalled King’s comic book written in 1958, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which sold for 10 cents.

The two collaborated on the book with Nate Powell, who drew the pictures. Aydin recognized Karen Green, Columbia’s graphic novels librarian, for seeing that comics are “at the forefront of literature.” He added, “imagine if you could use comics to install a social conscience in millions of students.”

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, made a point of welcoming Lewis to the University, saying, “I’m here to pay tribute to John Lewis and the many themes he expressed are ones I believe in deeply,” he said. “I have enormous respect and admiration for his extraordinary courage and capacity that changed American society not just with respect to civil rights but countless other areas… including free speech.”

Bollinger discussed how the Civil Rights movement that Lewis helped lead influenced him personally as a student in the 1960s and ultimately during his time as president of the University of Michigan, when he defended its affirmative action policy in a 1999 case that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.  He pointed out that the next day [December 9] the Court would hear another challenge to admissions policies brought by forces that have been unrelenting in their opposition to affirmative action. “As a society we are very much in the struggle of trying to overcome discrimination and bigotry and unfairness and inequality that was at the root of the struggle that John Lewis led,” said Bollinger citing the continued segregation of public schools, mass incarceration and recent events highlighting inequality in the criminal justice system.  “We clearly are not done with that struggle.”

Lewis was introduced by Professor Casey Blake, director of the University’s Center for American Studies, who noted that Columbia had played a small but indirect role in Lewis’ “extraordinary journey.”

In that first Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, the future congressman carried two books in his backpack. One was by the great Catholic writer and Columbia graduate, Thomas Merton (CC’38); the other, The American Political Tradition, was written by Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter (GSAS’42).

“I am sure Merton and Hofstadter had no idea they were joining forces inside that backpack,” Blake said. “But the religious and political values they upheld certainly came together in the actions that the man carrying them in his backpack took on that fateful day."