David L. Garcia
Whether addressing the members of Congress, or simply a room full of historically-minded comic book fans, Congressman John Lewis can command a room. Nearly 500 San Franciscans filled McLaren Hall last Wednesday, Aug. 24. After an initial burst of rapturous applause, all sat in pregnant silence as Rep. Lewis, his face as authoritative as the granite heads of Mt. Rushmore, slowly walked to the stage.
Rep. Lewis was speaking in honor of the release of the third installment of his graphic novel series “March,” a critically acclaimed series that illustrates Rep. Lewis’ first-hand account of the Civil Rights Movement. The trilogy follows Rep. Lewis as he grows from a child on a farm in Alabama to a passionate civil rights activist, helping lead and organize some of the Movement’s most impactful demonstrations. Rep. Lewis spoke at the March On Washington in 1963, and he is the last living speaker from the March. He was also a leader of the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, which became the subject of the 2014 film “Selma.”
In his introduction, Dr. Ken Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education, spoke grandly about Rep. Lewis’ career in the House of Representatives. “John Lewis is often referred to as ‘the conscience of Congress,’” said Kumashiro, “John Lewis, after all, is considered to be among the most liberal and progressive in Congress, seeing and insisting on the interconnections of racial justice with institutionalized poverty, imperial wars, struggles for human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and health care.” The crowd burst into spontaneous applause at the mention of Rep. Lewis’ most recent act of peaceful demonstration, the sit-in on House floor by Democrats angry over the lack of action on gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando this past June.
Rep. Lewis took the stage and gave a speech that touched on the highlights of his life and career. He grew up in Troy, Alabama, and spoke about how the public library denied him a card in 1956. “We were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only, not for coloreds. I never went back to that public library until July 8, 1998 for a book signing. My first book.”
He also spoke about the power of forgiveness. He told the story of how, on May 9, 1961, Klan members attacked him and other Freedom Riders in a bus stop waiting room. “They left us lying in a pool of blood. Local police officials came up, wanting to know if we wanted to press charges. We said no. We come in peace, love. Several years later, in Feb. ‘09, two men came to my office, one in his seventies, one in his forties. The young man in his seventies said to me ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you at the Greyhound bus station…I want to know, will you forgive me?’ His son started crying, he started crying. And I said “Sir, I forgive you. I accept your apology.’ They hugged me and I hugged them back. And this is the power of the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. You can create a sense of community. A sense of one family. Because in a final analysis, we all live in one house.”
Speaking with Rep. Lewis were the co-author of “March,” Andrew Aydin, and the series’ illustrator, Nate Powell. Aydin, who serves in Rep. Lewis’ office as his Digital Director and Policy Advisor, discussed how he was inspired to share his unorthodox idea for a graphic novel series with Lewis after learning about “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a 10 cent comic book that told the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although mostly forgotten by many mainstream comic fans, it was widely distributed among civil rights activists in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“It was beautiful. Sixteen pages, including the cover….Nobody [I knew] really knew anything about it, who made it,” said Aydin. “But I knew that it had inspired John Lewis…And I thought, ‘You know, why doesn’t John Lewis write a comic book?’ Probably the only person ever to think that at that point.” To his surprise, the Congressman took him up on his offer, and they began to work on the novel.
Powell spoke about how “March” succeeds not despite the fact that it is a comic, but because of its format. “Comics have unique strengths, unique narrative strengths, that allow us the kind of intimacy and immediacy that allows us to do things that no other medium can do,” he said. The violence and savagery that greeted many activists proved to be a unique artistic challenge for Powell. “As the violence exponentially increased, and as depictions of that violence, particularly of the Freedom Rides, needed to be confronted, I tried to challenge and subvert the way violence is depicted in comics, because it would have been real easy to fall into the way I’ve learned to draw comics my whole life, basically exploiting real people’s pain and real people’s deaths,” said Powell.
The event was a co-production between the Office of Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach (DECO) and the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. Mary Wardell, Vice Provost of DECO, was one of the organizers of the event.
“Congressman Lewis represents everything this university stands for,” said Wardell. “He reminded us that you have to actually get in the way when things need to be confronted. I felt I was among one of the greats, and you don’t get to feel that very often.”
Rep. Lewis and his co-speakers ended the event by taking questions submitted by the crowd. “I am different in many ways,” said one. “Thank you for fighting for me and my rights. Now it is my turn. How can I help?”
“Thank you for your question,” Rep. Lewis began. “When you see something that is not right, say something. Do something.”