The Long March of John Lewis
MTV News Talks to Civil Rights legend John Lewis and his two collaborators about their graphic novel trilogy
The history of the civil rights movement in America isn’t always presented in an accessible way. But in Congressman John Lewis’s 600-page autobiographical graphic novel trilogy March, both the ferocious violence and the haunting stillness of our country’s past take on new resonance. Events like Lewis’s nearly fatal beating on the Edmund Pettus Bridge more than 50 years ago, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the inauguration of President Barack Obama are woven together with incredible detail; the comic book, it turns out, is a great format for conveying history.
The third and final book from Lewis and his two collaborators, Andrew Aydin (a staffer in his congressional office) and Nate Powell, was released Tuesday. The following day, all three men joined MTV News in our podcast studio to discuss it. What follows is an extended account of the conversation you can hear on this week’s edition of "The Stakes" podcast (which you can also listen to below). It has been edited for clarity and length.
First of all, Congressman Lewis, I have to ask — this is the end of the trilogy, and a long storytelling journey for you. How satisfied are you with the final product?
John Lewis: The first time I picked it up, I kissed the book, because it is so complete. It is so whole. It is so moving. It tells the story. Some of it is really painful, but it’s finished. It is finished. And it’s my hope that a generation yet to come will have an opportunity to read [and] digest this book, and use it as a road map — as a way to act, as a way to speak up and speak out, and get involved, and get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.
What does that “necessary trouble” phrase mean?
Lewis: That when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to do something, to say something. You cannot afford to be silent.
Gentlemen, I want to ask you the same question I asked the congressman. You’re at the end of this journey, too. You were along with them the whole way.
Nate Powell: I’ll be the first one to say that going into this project, we knew that this would be a little bigger than some other comics — definitely that I’ve worked on — but we really had no idea what the potential scope of this could be. And once we worked out our process, the third book had so many more creative and editorial demands. We were getting over this threshold of answering the question, “Are comics legitimate as literature? Are comics legitimate in the classroom? Is it a legitimate memoir?” We were glad to play a part in kind of squashing that.
Andrew Aydin: So March: Book One was the first book I ever wrote. And it was the most terrifying process I’ve ever been through. You have such a sacred responsibility when you touch John Lewis’s story, when you touch the story of the movement. You don’t want to leave anything out, but you want to tell a good story so the people will read it and they’re engaged and they don’t fall apart with extraneous details. One of the biggest challenges for us is that people have different accounts. People say different things happened at different times, and when you’re trying to sort through all that, how do you decide what’s right?
One of the great advantages we had is that this is the first set of books about this much time in the movement that had access to the primary documents. Because of the digital changes in the last five or 10 years, so many of the primary records were all made available online. And so when we had a question, we were able to actually go directly to the historical record. So if there was a meeting, and we needed to know more about it, we went to the meeting minutes. And we knew who spoke, and what position they took. We were able to create a vivid picture that painted all of the characters, instead of just focusing on one or two or three or four. And then, at the end, you have to ask yourself: Am I showing everyone’s contribution? Am I explaining to the reader and to the people who might be inspired by this exactly how messy [the activism was] and how many people had to contribute, had to go through pain, had to suffer, in order for the society, and for the culture, and for the movement itself to get to a point where they could make that great leap?
And you know, now I look back on it and it’s like 600 pages and, I mean, my twenties are over, and it’s ... I don’t think I’ll ever do anything more important than this.
I want to get to the comic book form. And I’ll start, Congressman, with a different comic book that you read, when you were about 17 years old: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Can you tell me what that book did for you? What effect it had on you?
Lewis: The book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, I read it when I was about 17-and-a-half or 18. It changed my life. I heard of Martin Luther King Jr. when I was 15 years old. I heard of Rosa Parks. And I met Dr. King in 1958 at the age of 18. I met Rosa Parks ... But to pick up a fun comic book — some people used to call them “funny books” — to pick this little book up, it sold for 10 cents, 12 pages or 14 pages?
Lewis: 14 pages I digested. And it inspired me. And I said to myself, “If the people of Montgomery can do this, maybe I can do something. Maybe I can make a contribution.” Then I heard Dr. King speaking on the radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Robert Lewis, you too can make a contribution. You can get involved!”
So you felt it was a personal narrative. Others may see themselves in March, but in a different way. Vann Newkirk at theAtlantic wrote, “It’s impossible not to see the modern Black Lives Matter movement reflected in the violence.” The violence that’s depicted in the book. You know, you begin the third book with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and Congressman, I just want to ask, how do you hope people today see racial justice, or at least, how do you see, how do you hope that people see the fight for racial justice today reflected in these books?
Lewis: Well, it is my hope that people today will see that, in another time, in another period, when we saw the need for people to speak up, to organize, to mobilize, and to do something about injustice, we came together. We built a coalition of conscience, and that we can do it again, and we can go forward, and help redeem the soul of America.
Read the full interview here.