Congressman John Lewis on March

Eric Etheridge

John Lewis is Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District Representative, well-known for his role in the Civil Rights Movement—from organizing lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1961 to holding the Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to being one of the key architects of the historic March on Washington in August of 1963.

This July, he added “graphic memoirist” to his resume.

The Congressman’s story of his time working in the Civil Rights movement has been captured in comic book form in March: Book One, a project authored by Lewis and staffer Andrew Aydin and illustrated by artist Nate Powell.

WABE’s John Lemley sat down with the congressman to talk about the book and some of the stories behind it.

Congressman Lewis on March

March opens with a prologue set on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery, Alabama on March 7 1965, with the march which led to the infamous Bloody Sunday conflict, when civil rights demonstrators travelling from Selma to Montgomery were met with local police armed with clubs and tear gas and ended in a violent altercation. The action quickly shifts to the morning of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

The Congressman thought it was important to set the stage that way. In the book he is portrayed as telling the story of his childhood and his history in the Civil Rights Movement to young children.

“Many young people were coming into my office,” Lewis says, “and I was telling stories, like I do a great deal.”

In his youth, Lewis says he aspired to be a preacher, and indeed, he was ordained as a minister after attending American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College). But once caught up in the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis says the larger community “became my church.”

Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a transformative moment for Lewis. He had written to the reverend, seeking help with a college transfer, and was sent a bus ticket and invited to Montgomery to meet.

The young Lewis was ushered into the office of the First Baptist Church, where Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy were working.

“I was so afraid,” says Lewis, “to be in the presence of these two men that I’d heard about—heard their name on the radio, read about them in the paper. And Dr. King said to me as I walked in: ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’”

Lewis responded with his full name, “’Dr. King, I’m John Robert Lewis.’ I wanted him to be sure…and I wanted to be sure that I was the right person. And that was the beginning of my relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.”

March is written about the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis says the entire project began after hearing one of his staffers, Andrew Aydin being teased about attending Comic-Con, a comic book conference. The congressman was quick to jump to the young man’s defense, recalling a comic book he remembered from 1957, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.

“It sold for 10 cents,” Lewis recalls. “And it told the struggle of the people in Montgomery, and it inspired many young people. It inspired me to start studying the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence.”

Aydin encouraged the Congressman to write a comic book. Lewis told him he would do it if Aydin wrote it with him.

And with artist Nate Powell on-board, the three became “like brothers,” Lewis says.

“Andrew would come and interview me,” Lewis says of the process. “He would write and I would check the writing and say ‘no, this is not it, you didn’t get it.’” Congressman Lewis chuckles as he recalls Aydin suggesting rewrites and different approaches, working together over the phone and late into the night.

The two would then share their work with Nate Powell. Lewis praises the artist’s work as amazing.

“In a matter of minutes—a matter of a few seconds, he can read a story and make it sing,” Lewis says.

Seeing his story laid out in comic book form, Lewis says, is a moving experience. And it is his hope that March allows his story to be passed on to children. He recalls a reporter saying that after reading the book, his nine year old son dressed himself in a suit and cap—a look similar to the Congressman’s own regular outfit—and telling his father “I’m ready to march for equality.”

Congressman John Lewis is the Keynote speaker of the 2013 AJC Decatur Book Festival. His graphic memoir March: Book One is available now. You can hear interviews with co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell here.