Congressman John Lewis is an American hero. As he tweeted on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, he is the only speaker from that day of legendary oratory still alive. In his twenties, Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest member of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.1 Under Lewis’s leadership, SNCC worked on voter registration drives, Freedom Schools, and the Freedom Summer of 1964 to bring equality and the vote to African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. And perhaps most famously, Lewis was one of the leaders of the march from Selma to Montgomery.2 Since 1987, he has served Georgia’s 5th district in the US House of Representatives, where he continues to get into “good trouble,” like the House sit-in against gun violence earlier this year.
As one of the only remaining Civil Rights leaders, we are lucky that Lewis decided to document his time in the movement using a fairly new medium — the graphic memoir. In the three-volume March, co-written with former aide Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, the Civil Rights Movement comes alive as he pairs his narrative with illustrations of the events in comic-book style. The third volume was released in August, capping off a wonderful series with some of the biggest events of Lewis’s activist career. Today, as a new generation of civil rights activists hit the streets, Lewis’s story of nonviolent activism is an important read.
The three books are framed by Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In Book One, Lewis encounters a black mother and her young sons on that auspicious day. The family wants to learn more about their history, and so Lewis begins to tell his life story. The first volume depicts his childhood in rural Alabama, where his parents raised him to stay out of trouble and to accept the status quo. Inspired by hearing Dr. King on the radio, Lewis began to preach as a teen in his hometown and decided to pursue a seminary degree. But once he left home to get an education in Nashville, he quickly got involved in the early movement. He gives a vivid account of his participation in the sit-ins that fought to desegregate lunch counters.
In Book Two, invigorated by these nonviolent protests, he headed into Mississippi with the Freedom Rides. His nonviolent resolve is tested again and again, with threats, beatings, arrests, and imprisonment. White protesters torched a Freedom Ride bus, and this scene is featured on the book’s cover. At just 23 years old, Lewis was elected chair of SNCC, which put him in a central position during the March on Washington.
Book Three finishes the story with another March. It opens with the horrifying bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The first pages show four girls being warned that they need to hurry up in the restroom before the service starts, and the knowledgeable reader knows what tragedy is coming. The death of these four children would emphasize to the movement’s leaders both the violence they faced and the importance of their struggle. Much of this third volume focuses on the Selma march, the many attempts to get the surrounding Dallas County citizens registered to vote, and the intransigence of the local authorities, led by Sheriff Jim Clark.
A side-by-side passage effectively compares the experience of a white man and a black woman attempting to register to vote. While the man sails through the process, told at the end to “have a great day,” the black woman was screamed at, called a racial slur, given a test, and told she failed when she took too long. Directly comparing these two outcomes, drawn together on the page, highlights the inequalities of Jim Crow. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did nothing to solve voter discrimination, and SNCC continued the fight in Mississippi and elsewhere.
The march from Selma to Montgomery took the activists from Sheriff Clark’s streets to the capitol steps of George Wallace — the notorious segregationist governor who openly declared his unwillingness to allow equality in his state. But, as we saw in the film Selma, it was not an easy task to organize this march. By 1965, there was much division between the various civil rights groups and leadership about the best approach.
On behalf of SNCC, Lewis often pushed for more. As activists were killed and voters turned away, a big event like the march seemed more and more necessary to showcase activists’ demands. But white supremacists would not take this lying down — the first march on March 7 resulted in Bloody Sunday, when participants, including Lewis, were beaten and gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis ended up in the hospital with a head wound, but insisted on trying again. A shortened second march took place two days later, when Dr. King led a group to the bridge, then turned back to the church. This violence would lead to a national outcry and pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson to lobby for a voting rights bill. On March 21, the marchers crossed the bridge and traveled by foot for four days to reach the capitol. In Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong. Book Three closes by returning to Obama’s inauguration, where Obama hugs Lewis and thanks him for getting America to this day. At the very end, Lewis turns to his aide Aydin, as they discuss the idea for this book series.
Regardless of form, John Lewis’s story is one that all Americans should read. By producing a graphic memoir, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell have made it more accessible. The subject matter is too mature for children — the images are blunt and bloody when it comes to arson, beatings, bombings — but this would make a fantastic teaching tool for high school or college classrooms. Because of his remarkable life, many of the most important Civil Rights figures appear in his memories.
Over the course of his story he speaks with Dr. King, runs into Malcolm X in Kenya shortly before Malcolm’s death, meets with President Johnson in the White House, and works with notable women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and Rosa Parks. Countless other figures appear, but the story necessarily revolves around Lewis. By focusing on his youth, this memoir might remind teens and young adults of how much effect they can have on the issues they care about. And as Lewis continues to advocate, they could get themselves into “good trouble.”
- The other five were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. Return to text.
- He was portrayed in the recent film Selma by Stephan James. Return to text.