John Lewis’s Trilogy Is Off to a Fast Start

John Lewis at a book signing for his novel, March: Book One, on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013.
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Oct. 24, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

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-à-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.

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