John Lewis’ new nonfiction comic book wins a National Book Award
If you didn’t know, ‘March’ is a three-book series co-authored by the longtime Georgia congressman
For the first time, a comic book (or graphic work of nonfiction) has won a National Book Award. It is called March. In three volumes, it tells the story of the American civil rights struggle through the eyes of a young John Lewis. A congressman representing Atlanta for more than three decades, the 77-year-old Lewis co-authored the work with the help of two white Southerners: Andrew Aydin, who wrote the script, and Nate Powell, who created the art.
March is a remarkable work that may change the way a generation of Americans learns about the history of the civil rights movement. It may become to that struggle what another graphic novel – Maus – was to the Holocaust. That work – a beast fable by Art Spiegelman – earned a special Pulitzer citation in 1992. With a National Book Award in its pocket, March could contend for a Pulitzer in 2017, either in the history, biography, or general nonfiction categories.
Unlike the National Book Awards, the Pulitzers have no YA (Young Adult) category. It would be wrong to think of March as limited to a particular audience or age group. While the March trilogy makes its way into schools and church groups – from elementary through high school – adult readers are also finding the work informative and compelling. I can’t remember being moved to tears by any other comic book.
The creators of March – Aydin and Powell – both told me in telephone interviews that the movement of the trilogy could be compared to one created by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Over the course of seven books, the story of the young wizard grew with the audience. As readers of the first book matured from elementary school to become middle school and then high school readers, they were presented by Rowling with work that was longer, more challenging, more violent, more adult.
In the same way, March (Book One) leads younger readers by the hand into the narrative, humanizing heroes such as Lewis, revealing the injustices and humiliations of Jim Crow, foreshadowing the terrorism and torture to come, but also focusing on the charming and whimsical moments in the coming-of-age of a young activist.
To this day, Lewis loves telling the story of growing up on a farm near Troy, Alabama, where he was given the responsibility of tending to the family’s chickens. Over several pages, we learn of the protagonist’s love and care for his favorite fowl. He names each one, learning its personality and preferences. But John doesn’t want to be a chicken farmer, he wants to be a preacher, and before he feeds their bodies, he feeds their souls with readings from the Bible:
They would sit quietly.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
They would bow their heads.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
They would shake their heads.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
But they would never quite say Amen.
Before long, Lewis would learn of a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. He would seek him out, eager to join the movement. King would nickname him The Boy from Troy.
Book One takes us through the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. It follows Lewis and a group of young activists who form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – pronounced SNICK). It ends with the students’ determination to take direct action against racial injustice, staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the South. They are so young and so brave. The Boy from Troy becomes a Man with a Plan.
March (Book Two) is all action. We read with fear and trembling as our young heroes take on the forces of racial hatred on Freedom Rides through the South up to the March on Washington, where Lewis would be one of six speakers. Every nonviolent action provokes terror, which calls more national attention to the movement, evokes more sympathy, and ignites more political pressure for the South to change. Lewis and his friends are arrested, beaten, jailed. We watch in horror as civil rights activists are murdered. The myth of Southern civility is punctured forever, replaced by a vision of the cruelty of the American version of apartheid.
The final volume, (Book Three) becomes even more intense. It begins in September 1963. Racial terrorists set a dynamite bomb that blows up at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls, rehearsing for a Sunday school play, are killed. By the end of the trilogy, we feel every blow directed against Lewis and his colleagues, and we follow his every step across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma and into Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, the so-called Cradle of the Confederacy, the place where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederate States, the spot where Gov. George Wallace promised “Segregation Forever,” but also the place where King was a young pastor and where Parks refused to move.
The script by Aydin is spare and riveting, leaving plenty of room for the inventive visual artist Powell. A best-selling graphic novelist, Powell powers the story forward in an average of about five frames per page, rendering images and lettering in black, white, and three shades of gray.
Because we live in a world of color, and because we associate the experience of comic books with vivid color imagery, the use of black, white, and gray feels almost shocking. While symbolic of the racial divides in the country, black and white also has the effect of transporting us back in time to the 1950s and 60s, when most of the news of the day was experienced in print and on television in black and white.
Powell’s art is cinematic and dynamic in the way it captures the richest variety of “camera angles”: from the shoes of a church lady clicking down the hallway to her hands pushing open the ladies room door where she finds four young girls gossiping inside to a Sunday school classroom where a lesson is being taught on the love of neighbor to an explosion filling the church basement with black smoke to the chaos of fear and death inside and outside the church to the hand of a father holding the shoe of his dead child.
I asked Powell about the challenge of a white artist capturing the distinctive features of black Americans without resorting to visual stereotypes that poisoned, for example, the Little Black Sambo stories of the first half of the 20th century. Powell, 38, has been publishing comics since he was 14 years old. His editors on a previous book, The Silence of Our Friends, “advised me that some of my depictions of African-American characters were too timid, and that they looked a bit too white. Much of the related issues and anxieties regarding representation were worked out during the process of drawing that previous book, and I’d become more confident in my ability to rise to the challenge of March.”
Credit for the idea of March must go to Aydin. In 2008, Lewis told him that as a young man he had once read a comic book about King that had inspired him to embrace the philosophy and strategies of nonviolent resistance. Aydin found a digital copy of that comic book online and thought “there should be a John Lewis comic book.” The next day, “I suggested that he should write a comic book. … John Lewis said yes, but only if I would write it with him.”
Aydin, now digital director and policy adviser to Lewis, would attend graduate school at Georgetown. In 2012, as he was working on a draft of March, he would also write a thesis titled The Comic Book That Changed the World. That comic, the one that had inspired a young John Lewis, was titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
This modest 16-page comic was first published in December 1957 and cost a dime. Its story describes heroism not in terms of super strength or X-ray vision, but in the forms of passive resistance practiced by the heroes of the civil rights movement.
In its time – and as a result of reprints and translations – it spread the gospel of nonviolent resistance around the globe. In certain places, it was considered dangerous to possess. It led Ed King, a prominent minister in the Mississippi movement, to have copies destroyed. If you were stopped and caught by the wrong people with the propaganda of racial justice, you could be killed.
The MLK comic was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had been active during the Montgomery bus boycott. It is attributed to two writers, Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnick, and was produced for free in an old studio owned by Eliot Caplin, brother of popular cartoonist Al Capp, and drawn beautifully by an anonymous artist. Designer Eddie Campbell suspects the artist may have been Sy Barry, who worked for years illustrating The Phantom, a cartoon often set in Africa and featuring black characters.
The story is divided into three parts. It begins with a one-page prologue, describing the life and work of King up until 1957. It then steps back to 1954. A narrator named Jones, who lives in Montgomery, describes the rigors and humiliations of life under Jim Crow. He becomes an admirer of Parks, joins the bus boycott, and follows the teachings of King, even as his house is bombed in retaliation for his activism.
In comic books, of course, we are used to superheroes flying in to save the day. In this book, the superpower is nonviolence. An epilogue describes the methodologies of nonviolent resistance, exemplified in the struggles in India led by Mahatma Gandhi against the British Empire and the reimagining of nonviolence during the civil rights movement in America.
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story remains a powerful historical document, having influenced political movements all over the world, including countries throughout the Middle East. Cartoonist Ethan Persoff scanned an original version of the comic book, which is available at no cost. Reprints have been published.
While I was a kid reading Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics, Lewis was immersed in a comic book that would inspire him and thousands of other young activists to take to the streets, to offer their bodies up to the police club, cattle prod, attack dog, and fire hose to turn the country toward righteousness.
It feels like the closing of a perfect circle to have the life and work of Lewis now portrayed in a graphic novel for a new generation. Aydin describes how the book has been brought into more than 100 schools where young people can learn their history and turn it into action. After the experience of the book, Aydin says, a high school student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, testified that “I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but now I want to be an activist.”
Let me end on a personal note. On March 31, John Lewis was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Poynter Institute, the school where I have taught writing and journalism since 1977. The event celebrated the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes, focusing on work related to the themes of social justice and equality.
Before the event, Lewis gathered with a tight circle of about 20 young men – middle school and high school students – participants in an education enrichment program called the Write Field. They had read the first two books in the series and were brimming with appreciation for Lewis’ story.
That meeting was at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida. Later, in front of more than 800 people, Lewis told the story of preaching to the chickens and everything that followed. He encouraged journalists to “make good trouble,” in the continuing struggle for civil rights and equality.
I wrote the script for the event, which included readings by more than 20 Pulitzer winners with interludes from a gospel choir performing the “songs of freedom.” At the very end, I stood on stage as a narrator with the choir as they sang We Shall Overcome. I watched members of the audience stand, hold hands, and sway. Many closed their eyes. Many wept. A strong hand grabbed mine. I looked to my left. I was holding the hand of John Lewis. I can think of no better act of gratitude for his physical and moral courage than to read his story in March and then pass it along to someone who needs it.