When Andrew Aydin, an aide to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., told his boss he was going to Comic-Con, the annual comic-book extravaganza, Aydin was teased by some of his colleagues.
"Some of the guys started making fun of him," said Lewis, at a book-signing Wednesday evening for March: Book One, the first installment of a three-part autobiographical graphic novel. "I said, 'You shouldn't do that, you shouldn't make fun of him. There was another comic book that came out in 1958.'"
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was a field manual for waging Mahatma Gandhi-style campaigns of passive resistance. The 14-page comic book, which was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and sold for 10 cents, inspired the young Lewis to abjure violence and counseled disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. not to retaliate against the taunts, sneers, and spittle of the movement's opponents. In March, Lewis speaks at length about Jim Lawson, one of the men affiliated with FOR.
"He spoke of Gandhi, this little brown man from India using the way of nonviolence to free an entire nation of people," writes Lewis, over a drawing of his younger self meditating in a church pew. "And how we could apply nonviolence, just as Dr. King did in Montgomery, all across America — South and North — to eradicate some of the evils we all faced: the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, the evil of war"¦. His words liberated me. I thought, 'This is it. This is the way out.'"
Shortly after March was released, it rocketed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for paperback graphic books, and the slim volume is now perched in the No. 4 spot. On Wednesday, March drew a crush of comic-book mavens to Union Station, with a line snaking from the east wing of the building into the Main Hall. Lewis and Aydin, delayed by a vote on Capitol Hill, were 30 minutes late to arrive, but the crowd only grew in the interim.
Lewis has said that March, which was ghost-written by Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, is intended for readers of all ages, but the subject is grim. The graphic novel opens on March 7, 1965, with civil-rights demonstrators under attack by a phalanx of police officers wielding rifles and truncheons. March then fast-forwards to Jan. 20, 2009 — the day of President Obama's first inauguration.
Lewis's office on Capitol Hill is littered with pullet-themed bric-Ã -brac, and the first installment of his illustrated autobiography explains why. The son of a sharecropper in southeastern Alabama, Lewis grew up in the company of chickens and practiced sermons in the chicken coop. "I would get them all into the henhouse and settle them on their roosts," he writes. "They would sit quietly. They would bow their heads, they would shake their heads, but they would never quite say 'amen.' "
Now in his 14th term as a Democratic congressman from the Atlanta metropolitan area, Lewis spoke at the 1963 March on Washington when he was just 23. From 1963 to 1966, the young preacher was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and regarded as one of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil-rights movement. In 1977, Lewis was named director of ACTION, a predecessor of the Corporation for National and Community Service, by President Carter. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2011.