Congressman John Lewis talks to The Bitter Southerner about his relationship with Andrew Aydin and how it led to the publication of their National Book Award-winning graphic novel, “March.”
Story by Alex B. Johnson | Photographs by Willis Bretz
It might be the most important “comic book” ever created.
“March” — the collaboration between Congressman John Lewis, his congressional staffer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell — is a monumental work of nonfiction. It propels the spirit and power of the Civil Rights Movement’s nonviolent action into the 21st century. The trilogy — the first graphic novel ever to win the National Book Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award — has also expanded the historical canon to include comics. Schools in at least 40 states are teaching “March,” and it’s an international bestseller with a half-million copies in print in seven languages.
But there is something else that makes “March” special, and it lives outside the pages.
It’s the friendship between a 77-year-old icon of the Civil Rights Movement and a 33-year-old second-generation Turkish Atlantan. Aydin has worked for Congressman Lewis for a decade, but their co-author relationship began in 2008 when Lewis stepped to Aydin’s defense after he took some ribbing from coworkers when they learned he planned to spend his vacation at a comics convention. Five years later, they had published the first volume of “March,” and today, after three books and long traveling tours, the unlikely pair behave more like family than congressman and aide.
“I’ve said we're like brothers ... and we have fun,” Lewis says in the museum-like meeting room of his congressional office on the third floor of Cannon House Office Building in Washington. Then Lewis, one of Time magazine’s hundred most influential people in the world and the last living member of the Civil Rights Movement’s “Big Six” organizers, repeats with emphasis, “We have fun... He tells people I've been his congressperson since he was three years old.”
Aydin, who was only three years old when his father abandoned him and his mother, has found another father figure in Lewis. Aydin treats him with the earned reverence one would expect, usually addressing him as “Congressman.” But occasionally, the jovial nature of their relationship sneaks out when Aydin refers to Lewis as “J.L.” Aydin shakes his head at their relationship and calls it a union of “odd ducks.”
Beyond the personal joy, the two men’s relationship also gives us proof that the teachings of Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. cross the generations. Lewis had already two other books, but “March” is unique because of his bond with Aydin. Had Lewis not lived the life, these stories would not exist, but if Aydin had not been so persistent about fusing his comic-book fandom with his professional and post-graduate interest in the Civil Rights Movement, then the books themselves would not exist.
“March” illustrator Nate Powell has worked with them for eight years and may know their multifaceted relationship best. Powell says there is “certainly a father-son dynamic at its core, but Andrew is very mindful of their everyday professional dynamic.” Both pay “Southern attention to manners,” Powell says, and act with the professional decorum expected in a congressional office, but “they're both regularly checking on each other's well-being, and my own, when we're on the road.”
Together, they are sharing true stories to inspire the next generation. With “March,” a trilogy whose core is the universal principles of love and devotion to service, these three Southerners demonstrate that we can work together, across disparate interests, if we seek the one interest that is common to us all: peace.
“March” shares Congressman Lewis’s life stories from when he was a little boy preaching to chickens in Alabama to his work leading sit-ins in Nashville and Freedom Riders through Mississippi to his current role as an elder statesman in Washington. The books illustrate how nonviolence can empower a person at any age, facing any problem. But choosing the way of peace, like anything worthwhile, takes practice — and training.
“We had role play, we had social drama: Someone beats you or spits on you or pours hot water, hot coffee, how are you supposed to react?” Lewis recalls. “And I accepted the way, the teaching, as a way of life. As a way of living.”
In “March,” Lewis and Aydin show how a young man with courage and conviction can learn to endure countless beatings and emerge stronger on the other side of 41 unjust imprisonments, emboldened in the earned armor of love. While violence is loud and easy, love is quiet and calm and must be sought.
Lewis first absorbed the philosophy of peace from his family and at church in Troy, Alabama. In Nashville — where he studied and worked as a janitor at the American Baptist Theological Seminary — he discovered Mahatma Gandhi’s writing and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” It’s also where he met activist and professor Jim Lawson, who exposed him to the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s work to put nonviolent resistance into action.
“Meeting Jim Lawson, when I was much younger, had a profound impact on my life,” Lewis says. “If it hadn't been for Jim Lawson, I wouldn't be the human being that I am today. He embedded a group of us, maybe imbued us with the philosophy of nonviolence. Love. Kindness. He taught us that when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something. You have to say something. But say it with love ... and act with kindness. And never hate. It was in keeping with what I heard Dr. King saying already, that hate is too heavy a burden to bear. Just love everybody. It's the better way.”
Lawson put Lewis to work, too, writing the “Dos and Don’ts” of the sit-in movement. With a ream of paper and the help of a fellow student, Bernard Lafayette, and a secretary, “We cut the page in half, distributed more than 500 copies. So on February 27th, when the first mass arrest occurred in Nashville, every single person that was arrested had a copy of the ‘Dos and Don’ts.’” Lewis was learning the importance of organized preparation.
Lewis and those who marched with him confronted bats and guns, wielded both by uniformed authorities and lynch mob terrorists. They were armed in their pursuit of peace with only how-to guides for resisting violence. It takes courage to eschew anger for kindness in the face of snarling dogs and fire hoses.
On the day of my interview with Lewis and Aydin, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black told me that Lewis “lives to illuminate.” So I asked Lewis, who is often called the “Conscience of Congress,” how he remains a light for hope and peace when someone makes him angry.
“Well, I don't think I ever really get angry,” Lewis says. “I have what I call from time to time a sense of righteous indignation. But just getting mad and angry, I never have the urge or the feeling to strike out against another human being. There might be something that some people will say from time to time that is not pleasing, it doesn't sound good or right. But I'm not going to be mean or hostile toward an individual or a group of individuals.”
Besides the “Do’s and Don’ts,” Movement foot soldiers had another how-to guide: “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a 16-page, 10-cent comic book created by King and Jim Lawson in 1957. Overshadowed by the more widely referenced narratives of the Movement, such as King’s “Why We Can’t Wait,” “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and “Letter From Albany Jail,” King’s comic book fell out of the collective memory after the 1960s — until John Lewis’s reelection campaign in 2008, when he defended a young staffer for reading comics.
“Back in the campaign in 2008, folks were talking about what they were going to do after the campaign was over, and some folks said they were going to the beach [and others] to go see their parents,” Aydin says. “I said I was going to a comic-book convention, and everybody laughed at me, except I heard a deep voice say, ‘Don't laugh. There was a comic book during the Movement, and it was very influential.’”
That voice, of course, belonged to Lewis, who had strong memories of the “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” comic. King’s comic explained to contemporaries how to use “the Montgomery Method” of nonviolent action, exhibiting how loving and forgiving violent oppressors while defending human dignity could lead to political change. Lewis remembers it as a “roadmap” that he followed first as a young man organizing sit-ins.
That comic book, Lewis says, “became a roadmap, and we followed it. It inspired us. It educated us. It informed us — this whole feeling that if the people in Montgomery can stay off the buses for 381 days and if they can move and organize in a nonviolent, peaceful fashion, we too as students, as young people, can protest in a nonviolent fashion. Be willing to be arrested, jailed, or beaten as we participated in the sit-ins and later the Freedom Ride. So it helped me to grow and develop as a better human being.”
When Aydin entered Georgetown University to pursue a master’s degree in public policy — as a night-school student — he built his thesis around that comic book.
“I had all these questions about ‘Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,’ right?” Aydin says. “We didn't really understand how ‘Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story’ had been used in such a strategic way in the South in the early days of the Movement, but it turns out it had, and we found out that Martin Luther King had helped edit the comic book. We found out how Jim Lawson had used it in many of his nonviolent workshops all throughout the South and had actually, by his own admission, helped inspire some of the earliest acts of civil disobedience in the Movement. Acts that actually predated the sit-in movement by about a year.”
Aydin says what he learned and wrote in that master’s thesis would later become “a roadmap for what we wanted to do with ‘March.’”
Aydin and Lewis are extending Lawson and King’s legacy by using the comic-book medium to remind modern activists that nonviolent action remains the way to affect change.
The bookshelves in Aydin’s Capitol Hill row house are telling. They display his wide-ranging interests — from current writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, Elena Ferrante, and Jonathan Franzen — to the classics. In his home writing office — beneath the awards he won for “March” rest a few signed Ralph Ellisons and first editions of William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,” Jack Kerouac’s “The Subterraneans,” and Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.” One shelf holds at eye level the books Aydin sourced to write Book Three of March, including David Halberstam’s “The Children,” “Gandhi: An Autobiography,” and Lewis’s own “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.”
There is also a shelf dedicated exclusively to graphic novels and comics. Aydin is, after all, a self-professed “comic book nerd.” And he believes comic books will play bigger roles in the future of literature.
“We’re a visual generation,” Aydin says. “Emojis and memes are essentially sequential storytelling.”
Indeed, “March” dramatizes the inner workings of the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders in a sensory way; it reaches emotional depths that dry, high-school history books simply cannot. And there is plenty of evidence comic books and graphic novels are quickly becoming part of the world’s historical canon. In the mid-2000s, Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” series, about an Iranian girl growing up and confronting deaths, political lies, and questions over justice and religion, gained broad attention and became an Academy Award-nominated feature film in 2007. Riad Sattouf, a longtime cartoonist at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, left the magazine in 2014 to publish an award-winning, three-volume series called “The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East,” has now been translated into 16 languages. More recently, after the success of “Between the World and Me,” journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates teamed up with Marvel to revive a series about crime-fighting superheroes, “Black Panther & the Crew.”
Such graphic novels have been nominated before, but “March” was the first to win a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. So it seems Americans are coming around to the idea that comics don’t belong solely in the Sunday funny papers.
We’re only a few years behind Belgium, which in 2009 opened the Musée Hergé to honor the work of one of the most successful comic book authors ever, the Belgian artist Georges Remi, aka Hergé, the creator of “The Adventures of Tintin.” Splayed atop an entrance to one of the exhibits at Musée Hergé is the quote, “There is no lesser art.”
Aydin worked on telecommunications and technology policy for Congressman Lewis before pitching the idea of writing a comic book with him. After Lewis defended him for going to Comic-Con and introduced him to “The Montgomery Story,” Aydin had an idea.
“I went home that night and read it on the internet and had this moment of, like, ‘There should be a John Lewis comic book,’’ he says. “And we went through the process of me convincing him. It didn't take that long.”
Says Lewis, “He was persistent.” Still, it took Aydin five years to develop their idea into a published book. “I maxed my student loans and dropped a roommate to create a sort of writing studio,” Aydin says of the early writing phase. The closing scene of “March” takes place in the hallway outside Lewis’s Capitol Hill office. In it, Lewis agrees to let Aydin help him write the book as long as they can find an artist who “can make the pages sing.”
They found one in Nate Powell, whose vibrant lines and shading techniques create evocative contrasts in emotion. For example, in one of the most violent scenes, when a terrorist’s bomb kills four little girls at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, it’s difficult not to shudder. I found myself grimacing and trying to look around the plumes of dark smoke to find the little girls.
Powell’s art evokes not only horror, but also hope. He writes cursive script for some of the sermon language about loving the enemy, and he frames a page set in Selma with budding trees to mark spring. Lewis remarks on Powell’s gifted ability, saying he can actually make the “words sing and dance off the pages.” Lewis consistently talks about the importance musicians and other artists had during the Civil Rights Movement. “If it hadn't been for music, the Civil Rights Movement would've been like a bird without wings,” he says.
I talked to Jon Batiste, the young pianist from New Orleans who leads the band every weeknight on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” before Batiste’s performance at New Orleans’ 48th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. Batiste had recently done a segment for the “Colbert” show in which he interviewed Lewis while getting a haircut. Batiste told me Lewis “has a presence about him” that comes “from all he’s been through,” and that he considers Lewis an inspiration to use his music to influence society positively.
I show Lewis the page in Book Two of “March,” a scene at the March on Washington when Lewis spoke immediately before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The scene depicts Mahalia Jackson in her floral hat and lists other musicians who performed at that momentous event, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
“Musicians have such influence,” Lewis says. “They're honest. They can teach us something through dance or playing the horn or singing a song. A wonderful painting, a wonderful drawing, can lift people, can inspire people. I think they all go together, and that's why so many artists were attracted to the Movement. It was people doing something, using their feelings, their talents, their skills, their emotions.”
While visiting his office, Lewis introduces me to the work of Georgia-born painter Benny Andrews, whose image of Lewis — as a “boy preacher” with an audience of chickens — hangs on the congressman’s wall. It is one of 20 pieces Andrews made for the last project before his death in 2006 — a series of illustrations for a book called “John Lewis In the Lead.” Lewis teaches me that Andrews was from Madison, Georgia, that he joined the Navy and “became an unbelievable artist” working “with people like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence” of the Harlem Renaissance. The other 19 paintings in Andrews’ final series are now housed at Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Lewis will donate this one “when I leave here.”
Another piece in his office is a portrait of three people — one of them a younger Lewis —with their heads down, praying, each resolute on one knee. The words beneath their knees say, “Come Let Us Build a New World Together.”
Says Lewis, “A painting [or] a drawing depicting what happened and how it happened helps educate, helps inspire, and give other people the courage to stand up.”
Lewis’ office feels more like a museum than the average congressional office. Sunlight pours into the room through floor-to-ceiling glass doors overlooking the Capitol Dome and Independence Avenue. Three walls display paintings, a Wheaties box with Lewis on the front, iconic framed photographs, portraits of King and Gandhi, posters from voter registration drives and from Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign before his assassination. There is a photo of Lewis and President Lyndon Johnson after the signing of landmark legislation near a cartoon caricature of LBJ and Lincoln discussing their similarities.
Next to family photos of Lewis and his late wife, Lillian, and son, John-Miles, are images of Lewis and King, their profiles set side-by-side, representing two generations of the Movement that ended Jim Crow. I can’t help but feel the “presence” Batiste described about Lewis. Seeing him and Aydin here in this room, it is not just the museum-like environment that feels special.
It’s their friendship, which bucks social conventions and professional norms. The books it produced, lying on the table between us, demonstrate the multi-ethnic and multi-generational endeavor of healing a divided nation.
“I have lived in the South almost all of my life,” Lewis says. “It’s where my roots are. It's the region of America that I know best. It's the region that I'm in love with. I know the highways, I know the roads, and the bypasses in Georgia, in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Tennessee. It's home.”
“March” is a deeply Southern work — one created by three Southerners of different backgrounds to inspire a better society with Congressman Lewis’s stories of heroism. Public school systems in Atlanta, Nashville, and Miami — among many other cities — are already teaching “March” to their students. This “feels very good,” Lewis says, and there is no wonder as to why. When he accepted his National Book Award, he reminded the crowd that he grew up barred from entering his local, whites-only, public library. “March” introduces a new generation to other heroes of the Movement, such as Bob Moses, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Jimmy Lee Jackson. It reminds us of the complexities of their personalities and opinions — how Lewis, King, and other leaders disagreed and argued often, but still remained unified in pursuit of the goal, achieving “one man, one vote.”
“It's not just my story, but it's the story of struggle. It's the story of people overcoming,” Lewis says. “Making America better and, in doing so, maybe we can make the world community better. People all over America and all around the world are reading ‘March’ and teaching ‘March.’”
It’s heartening that a comic book-style historical account of the Civil Rights Movement is now being used as a teaching tool in Southern schools. But it’s important to remember that the struggle is far from done. There are 917 active hate groups operating in the United States, and since the election in November 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented more than 1,000 hate incidents.
Lewis says he’s seen many changes in his native region, but acknowledges the lingering burden of the South’s dark history.
“I see a different America. I see a better America,” Lewis says. “During the late ’50s [and] the ’60s, you’d be riding in the car, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, or just working in some little town, little community. You saw the sign that said, ‘Klan Meeting Tonight.’ Or you saw a large billboard with pictures of Highlander Folk School, and some people called it the ‘communist training school’ with a picture of Rosa Parks or Dr. King, or Rev. [Ralph David] Abernathy. That's all gone. You don't see that anymore. I think the American South is in the process of making a transformation. People want to lay down the burden of race. Do we lay it down? Do we get there? It is my hope and my prayer, and I do believe that the young people, even young people that are little children today or in high school or middle school, they will lead us there. We will get there.”
Those young “March” readers can relive Lewis and King’s nonviolent revolution in these graphic novels and experience how their philosophy of peace in action buried Jim Crow and resurrected the ideal of equality among men and women in America. Lewis’s rhythmic, preacher’s voice shares wisdom and the power of peace. Co-author Andrew Aydin’s narrative structure adds suspense to the wise man’s wild history and emphasis to his advice, while artist Nate Powell’s drawings lift the memories off the pages. The bombs alarm us and Bull Conner’s hoses spray us. We hear the bus engines as the Freedom Riders roll on into the Deep South, and we grimace at the scenes of what greets them.
Powell says the core of the the Lewis-Aydin relationship “is based on deep respect and enjoyment of each other's company,” and that creating “March” would have been “impossible without that level of compatibility.”
And despite the differences in their backgrounds, Congressman Lewis thinks their compatibility might have something to do with a factor common to all of their backgrounds.
“Well, we are different in terms of age and generation, but the three of us come from the South,” he says. “Andrew grew up in Atlanta. Nate grew up in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. We're Southerners.”