John Lewis does not usually smile for the camera. Paradoxically enough, he laughs when this is pointed to him during a telephone interview. “A lot of people tell me that,” he says.
On the flyleaf to March: Book One, the graphic memoir authored by Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, there is a photo typical of Lewis, a civil rights icon and Georgia congressman who will appear with his co-authors Friday at Miami Book Fair International. The Capitol dome at his back, he faces the camera with a dogged expression as if the photo session were just one more thing he has to get through.
That tendency toward dour portraits contrasts sharply with an image of Lewis captured 52 years ago when he was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi — one of the earliest of what would eventually be more than 40 arrests. This image is Lewis’ mug shot.
Now, no one ever looks good on his mug shot. Michael Jackson looks like a frightened dowager. Charlie Sheen looks like he’s trying to zap the camera with his eye beams. Randy Travis looks like he might kill you and eat your heart. But Lewis, 21 years old, faces the camera with a smirk. There is in his face a righteous satisfaction that says the forces of institutionalized bigotry have lost their power to terrify him. The smirk tells Mississippi and all the structure of white supremacy behind it: do what you’ve got to do.
“It’s this feeling,” he says, “how much more you going to do us? And I was prepared for it. I was ready for it. The very first time I was arrested, I felt free. I felt liberated.”
The journey toward that moment of personal liberation — and beyond — is the subject of March, the first of a planned trilogy of graphic novels covering Lewis’ journey from a precocious boy who preached to the chickens on his family’s farm in Pike County, Ala., through the heat, hope and danger of the civil rights years, to his present station as an elder statesman of the movement and a member of Congress.
Lewis, who published the traditional autobiography Walking With The Wind in 1998, is not the first person who comes to mind when one thinks of people who write graphic novels. He says the idea was born five years ago when Aydin, one of his aides, announced to general derision in the office that he was headed to Comic-Con, the massive comic book convention. The congressman quieted the ridicule, reminding his staffers that a comic book released a few years after Martin Luther King came to international prominence — Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story — was pivotal in spreading the word about the Atlanta preacher and his philosophy of passive resistance.
“I read that book,” says Lewis, “and other young people read that book, and it lead to the sit-in movement. As a matter of fact, the four students [who started the movement when they sat down at a lunch counter] in Greensboro, N.C., got a copy, and they read it.”
Thus encouraged, Aydin pushed his boss to consider telling his own story in the comic book format. It took a few years, but Lewis finally said yes.
The result is a new version of an old story, the unadorned simplicity of Lewis and Aydin’s narrative neatly complemented by the unadorned simplicity of Powell’s drawings. There is an understated power in these pages.
“It is another means of reaching a larger audience,” says Lewis, “to get people to understand and to know what happened and how it happened, trying to make it real, not just to children and young people, but even adults. Many of the people in America today were not even born 40 and 50 years ago, and with the comic book form, it just dramatized it. It makes it so plain and so real to people to see what happened.”
The public’s response, says Lewis, has been gratifying. “We had a writer who passed a copy of the book to his nine-year-old son and according to the writer, the day after his son finished reading the book, he went up to his room and put on a suit and put on a hat and said, ‘I’m ready to march for equality.’ ”
It is a heartening anecdote that doesn’t quite mask a sobering reality. American children and even many American adults are startlingly ignorant about this history. Says Lewis, “I don’t think we’ve done a good job, a great job in informing and educating our children to what happened and how it happened. Some people may think, ‘Why should we repeat this? Why should we tell the story?’ It’s important for the story to be told.”
Indeed. Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a review quantifying by letter grade how good a job the country does in teaching the Civil Rights Movement. Thirty-five states got Fs. This includes 16 that do not require any instruction at all about the movement. Four states got Ds. Only three — Florida, Alabama and New York — got As.
So children do not learn what happened in Montgomery, Birmingham and Nashville not so long ago. They don’t learn that John Lewis had his skull fractured protesting for the right to vote in Selma. They don’t even learn that the right to vote, along with the right to use the public library, the public water fountain, the public park, the public movie theater, the public restaurant, were severely curtailed or outright denied for African Americans.
And as they look on in their ignorance, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, the Civil Rights Act is attacked by a prominent Congressman, southern states pass restrictive new voting laws and the machinery of mass incarceration hums along efficiently.
Lewis, who grew up when racism was coded by signs reading “Whites Only” and “Colored Only,” finds himself in the unenviable position of having lived long enough to see the work of a lifetime eroded.
“I see these invisible signs,” he says. “In the book, you see the White and Colored signs. I tell people the only places our children see signs today will be in a museum or in a video or in a book. But the invisible signs still exist in American society because the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in almost every corner of our society.”
One of the most obvious of those invisible signs is planted in front of the white mansion of Pennsylvania Avenue where the nation’s first African-American president lives with his wife and their two daughters. Says Lewis, “I think a lot of the problems the president is having — he may not admit it — I think it’s racial. I think a lot of people do not feel at home with the idea of an African-American as president, an African-American family living in the White House.“
In other words, Barack Obama, having inspired the “birther” movement, the Muslim rumors and a million jokes about Kenya, is the latest iteration of the old dance of African-American history: two steps forward, one step back. Look at the milestone we have reached. Look at all the new tribulations we have found.
Young people, says Lewis, must be taught these things. They cannot afford the luxury of believing the fight for African-American civil rights is just some artifact of history. “When something happens to some of our younger people today, they’re taken aback, they’re shocked, they can’t believe it. One thing I’ve tried to say over the years: the struggle is a constant struggle. It’s not a struggle for just a few days a few weeks or few months or a few years. It’s a struggle of a lifetime.”