Tuesday, August 6, 2013

March: Transforming an American civil rights icon into a geek celebrity

John Lewis rose from the humble beginnings of growing up poor on an Alabama sharecropper's farm to become a national leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and, later, a conscience of the Congress. He has lived a life committed to justice and nonviolence.

Now, imagine this same American civil rights icon and admired politician transforming into a geek celebrity. When he's not being the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation, Lewis has shown he's just as comfortable being surrounded by librarians and the Comic-Con crowd as he is being around politicians on Capitol Hill.

March, a graphic novel
trilogy by John Lewis
Lewis has written a graphic novel trilogy, March, and the first book in this series of three will be published next week by Top Shelf Productions. It's a remarkable and vividly-told memoir of his lifelong struggle for civil and human rights.

Book One illustrates Lewis' life as an African-American boy in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down Jim Crow segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins. Lewis' leadership in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. is relived in March, and we learn what happened and how it happened. (Eight days after the "Bloody Sunday" protest, former President Lyndon Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress.)

Lewis collaborated with writer and congressional aide Andrew Aydin and award-winning cartoon artist Nate Powell on March. Aydin adapted the strong narrative of Lewis' story to the graphic page and Powell richly illustrated it all in black and white. As a student, Lewis was inspired by the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. So, it should come as no surprise that Lewis would turn to the graphic novel format in which to provide another story about the American civil rights movement.

Now, everyone from CNN to Comedy Central is lined up to interview Lewis, the only sitting member of Congress to write a comic book, in the coming days. (He is booked to appear on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report on Aug. 13 to promote March.)

March has generated good reviews and drawn universal praise in advance of its Aug. 13 release.

"Congressman John Lewis has been a resounding moral voice in the quest for equality for more than 50 years, and I'm so pleased that he is sharing his memories of the Civil Rights Movement with America's young leaders," wrote President Bill Clinton on the book's back cover, in praise of March. "In March, he brings a whole new generation with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from a past of clenched fists into a future of outstretched hands."

As a young activist, Lewis once stood along side Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the "March on Washington" in the early 1960s and delivered a keynote speech at the march. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during its most productive years, Lewis was one of the "Big Six" leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement and the young upstart played a key role in the struggle to end legalized racial discrimination and segregation. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally 50 years ago (its golden anniversary is Aug. 28) and, sadly, is the only remaining speaker of the event alive today.

Now age 73, Lewis has served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, where he represents the 5th district of Georgia. In his distinguished career, Lewis has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barrack Obama, the first African-American President.

Rep. John Lewis signing March
at the American Library Association
summer conference in Chicago.
In June, at the American Library Association national conference in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to meet Lewis (I was third in line) and receive a signed "advance look" copy of March. (At the Comic-Con pop culture convention in San Diego last month, I learned, lines for Lewis' appearance were so overwhelming that fire marshals almost shut the event down.)

After signing my copy of March, Lewis extended his hand to shake mine. I thanked him for his lifelong dedication to civil rights and public service. I'm sure he hears this kind of praise all the time from his constituents and admirers. Nevertheless, he seemed appreciative of my words and thoughts -- and my interest in his book. Lewis looked me straight in the eye, smiled enthusiastically, and wished me well.

On this summer Sunday afternoon, it was too good an opportunity to not make the effort to be there for John Lewis and, personally, say "thank you" for his struggle of a lifetime to build a beloved community.

Photograph of Rep. John Lewis by Michael Dickens (copyright 2013). 
Image of March courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

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