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Legendary civil rights leader shares story, new graphic novel with Brooklyn audience

MARCH: Book One and Book Two’ to Serve as A Blueprint for Modern Civil Rights Movement

April 9, 2015 By Charisma L. Troiano, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Nate Powell, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Photo by Sandi Villarreal
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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch hosted civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis along with Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell for a discussion on a three-part graphic novel co-authored by Lewis and Aydin, the congressman’s digital director.

The trilogy, titled “MARCH,” chronicles Lewis’ journey from a young child in Troy, Ala., to his pivotal and lasting role in the civil rights movement.  

Written in the form of a graphic novel with the hopes of reaching a younger demographic, “MARCH” serves as an anthology of Lewis’ inspiration to join the civil rights movement, the evolution of non-violent civil action and an example of how to effectively use peaceful protest and progressive action to prompt nationwide change.

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Lewis, who was one of the “Big Six” national leaders of the movement along with such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, became visibly active in the civil rights movement in the Nashville sit-ins of 1960. He was a leader in the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — where Dr. King delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis is now the last living member of the Big Six.

“I don’t think that I’m a legend. I don’t think that I’m a hero, but I do think that I have a responsibility to continue to play the role in telling story of what happened, to inspire another generation to get out there to put their bodies on the line,” Lewis told the Eagle in an exclusive interview.

Along with co-writer Aydin and comic book artist Powell, Lewis hopes that his pioneering graphic novel will not only chronicle and inspire participants to act in the interest of change, but also work as an historical blueprint for the modern day movement for social justice. 

“He was so young when he started participating. These are young people today who are 18, 19 years old. Which is close to how old John Lewis was when he began. Show them how someone else did it,” Aydin said, referring to present-day activists. 

The artistic work is also a historic first, marking the first time a sitting member of Congress has authored a graphic novel — and one that comes full circle for the congressman and his co-writer Aydin.

Growing up, Lewis drew inspiration from the 1950s comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” and Aydin wrote his college thesis on the 14-page comic. All three collaborators own a copy of the 1950s comic, and reprints have been made available through Top Shelf Productions.

“MARCH: Book One” begins with Lewis’ rural life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Recalling a car ride from Alabama to Buffalo, N.Y., with his uncle Otis Carter, Lewis observed the terror on his uncle’s face as they carefully avoided areas in states such as Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, where residents and businesses were known to discriminate and, in some cases, to display violence against African-Americans. The first book follows Lewis’ quest to promote and protect civil rights on a local level, including the Nashville sit-ins.

In Book Two, the reader is taken from the local fight for civil rights to the national movement that rocked the country.  The books were released in August 2013 and January 2015, respectively.

But, for Lewis and his collaborators, the civil rights movement is one that is ongoing.

On Tuesday, prior to Lewis’ BPL discussion, authorities in South Carolina announced murder charges against a white police officer seen on bystander video shooting an unarmed black man eight times in the back as the victim was apparently fleeing from the officer. It has been reported that the encounter began once the victim was stopped for a broken taillight.  There have been similar recent instances of unarmed men of color being killed by on-duty police officers, including in Ferguson, Mo., in Staten Island and in the Louis Pink Houses in East New York.

“There’s a weight to the fact that these books have a voice and presence in larger public discussion, because they are needed,” said Powell. “We have the terrible fortune of having our books appear at a juncture in American history and events that really illuminate the distance we have come [since the 1960s], and the way in which that distance has not traversed. There’s the weight of knowing that the information and [Congressman Lewis’] personal journey are something that is so relevant and continues to be timely,” Powell continued.

Lewis and his collaborators started working on “MARCH” in 2008 at a time when the country was preparing for a historic change in leadership with the election of President Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president — a move that Lewis and Aydin predicted would be the beginning of a modern-day movement for the continued advancement of civil rights.  

The “underpinnings of youth involvement” that led to Obama’s election were a “wake-up call” for many that they, too, like their 1960s predecessors, could impact the political process, Aydin noted.

Through the creation and promotion of “MARCH,” the authors were witness to numerous and varied movements for social change.

Uprisings including the Arab Spring in 2010, the Tahrir Square protests and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Occupy Central in Hong Kong in 2013 and marches in Ferguson in 2014.

“It hits you over the head that the history is a living thing,” Powell added.  But telling a historical narrative where the root causes are still relevant has its challenges. “There is a level of responsibility to tell the whole story in an unabashed, unrestrained way.”

Speaking to the goals of the “MARCH” trilogy, Lewis expressed a wish that it would not only be a call to action but also a guide to a new way of life.

“It is my hope that young people and people not so young would read ‘MARCH’ and see what we did and how we did it and be committed to a way of peace a way of love and a way of nonviolence. Use it not just as a means and technique, but as a way of life. That you don’t have to wait until there’s some [police] shooting. But [make it a part of] your whole makeup … for a lifetime.”

Brooklyn Eagle reporter Charisma L. Troiano, Esq., interviewed the three creators of “MARCH” on Wednesday, April 8 in advance of the Brooklyn Public Library discussion on the trilogy. The quotes are excerpts from that interview.

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