The son of sharecroppers raised in the little town of Troy, Alabama, deep in the segregated South, Rep. John Lewis was a boy when he asked his mother why black children were forced to sit in the balcony level of the downtown movie theater, away from the white children seated on the first floor.
“My mother said, ‘Boy, that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’” he recalled.
He didn’t listen to his mother, going on instead to play a vital role in the civil right’s movement of the 1960s with his participation in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and peaceful marches throughout the South.
“The words of leadership of Dr. King inspired me to find a way, to get in the way,” Lewis said during an Aug.17 speaking engagement at the University of San Francisco to promote “March,” a graphic novel trilogy intended to teach Lewis’ story to a younger generation. “I got in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Lewis, 76, who has served as a Georgia Congressman for nearly three decades, co-authored the books with his digital director and policy advisor, Andrew Aydin, and illustrator, Nate Powell. “March,” which currently occupies the top three slots on the New York Time’s Best Sellers List for paperback graphic books, has been adopted in classrooms across the country, and is now available in San Francisco Unified School District high school libraries.
Lewis, who was in high school in 1956, tried to check out books from his local library in Troy, but was turned away because the library was for “whites only.”
“I never went back to that public library until July 5, 1998 for a book signing of my first book, ‘Walking with the Wind,’” Lewis told the nearly 300 people who packed the McLaren Conference Center at USF. “It says something about the distance we’ve come. And the progress we’ve made in laying down the burden of race.”
Fighting for that progress landed Lewis in jail nearly 60 times in the 1960s, and five more times since he’s been in congress.
“The first time I got arrested, I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I crossed over,” Lewis said. “And I’ll probably get arrested again for something. My philosophy is very simple. If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up and do something…find a way to get in the way.”
But despite that progress, Lewis, Aydin and Powell all acknowledged that their fight for justice is unfinished. The once overt racism of the 1960s has now been replaced by more covert forms of bigotry.
“We changed that. But we’re not there yet. Even today, the scars and stains of racism are deeply embedded in our society,” Lewis said, bringing up South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, who in 2009 yelled “you lie” at Obama during his joint session speech. “Would he have said that to a white person, or only [to] a person of color?”
The book’s co-author Aydin, the son of a Muslim immigrant, recently grew a beard in protest of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has swept the nation amid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“We’re living in a world right now where things are being said that make people scared. It’s meant to intimidate them, and to keep them from sticking up for themselves,” Aydin said. “There are fundamental problems in this country, that because of technology we’re able to see them clearly for the first time.”
Powell, the book’s illustrator, believes that people showing their bigotry is a step forward in having an honest conversation about race.
“I feel like the kind of confrontation, which makes people show their true colors … is a sign of tearing the wrapper off of the present, and seeing what’s inside and dealing with what’s inside the box,” Powell said.
Raised by a single mother and longing for super heroes, Aydin found refuge in comic books.
Working at the end of John Lewis’ congressional re-election campaign in 2008 as a press secretary, Aydin revealed to colleagues his plans on attending a comic book convention. All of his peers laughed, except for Lewis, who told the group about the 1957, 16-page comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.”
“It was John Lewis standing up for me as he stood up for so many,” Aydin said. The next day, he pitched the idea of Lewis writing a comic book as a way of reaching young people in the movement.
Lewis eventually agreed, on the condition that Aydin write it with him.
The two worked for five years to tell Lewis’ story, publishing their first book in 2013.
“I believed that we had to do everything we possibly could to tell John Lewis’ story,” Aydin said. “He’s the hero we all need.”
USF student Zasharah Araujo, who attended the event, became familiar with Lewis’ story about 10 years ago when she read “Walking with the Wind.”
“At a time in my life when I was trying to figure out who I was, as a Mexican-American, a child of immigrants, I felt different,” Araujo said. “When you’re not from the same class or the same race or you don’t have the same opportunities, you realize there is something you have to fight. It really opened my eyes and it helped me heal.”
Story by: Alexis Terrazas