By Hannah Lodge
A little more than 51 years ago, Rep. John Lewis was one of ten people to speak at the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Of those ten, Lewis is the only one still alive today.
1 of 10.
Lewis’s life is filled with meaningful numbers: 74 – his age; 5 – his congressional district; 37 – the number of days he spent in jail for using a “white-only” restroom; 45 – the number of times he’s been arrested.
Lewis and Legislative Aide Andrew Aydin appeared on a panel at Dragon Con in Lewis’s home district of Atlanta for their co-authored graphic novel, March: Book One, where they dropped another meaningful number: 47 – the number of states failing to adequately teach the Civil Rights Movement.
At the intersection of historical and modern is March: Book One, a timeless message delivered in a progressive medium. Aydin, who has attended Dragon Con for years and has always loved comics, said he saw an opportunity to use a graphic novel to educate on the Civil Rights Movement when Persepolis, a graphic novel published in 2000 detailing the war between Iran and Iraq, began to appear on school curricula.
“There is an opening we have now, where graphic novels are being accepted as literature, and I think someone like Congressman Lewis embarking on this journey into the medium only bolsters that credibility,” Aydin said. “In fact, he’s the first member of Congress to write a graphic novel.”
Aydin said March was designed with an inexpensive price point so that it would be feasible for school budgets. The graphic novel has been selected as a common reading book – a book read by the incoming freshman class over the summer for interactive discussions in their first year – at Michigan State University, Marquette University and Georgia State University. MSU and the City of East Lansing also sponsor a “One Book, One Community Program” in which members of the community and the freshman class participate in the reading and discussion together.
Amid national outcry over recent events in Ferguson, the book’s messages are as timely now as ever. Lewis spoke at the panel about the day that would eventually be known as “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 nonviolent protesters marched in a demonstration for the right to vote.
“I was the first to be attacked,” he said. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I had a concussion on the bridge. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.”
The brutality made it to the news, which caused a ripple effect of demonstrations in more than 82 cities across America. Only eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson would make a speech now known as the “We Shall Overcome” speech, which Lewis called “one of the most meaningful speeches that any American president had made in modern times on the oppression of civil rights and voting rights.”
Lewis said that the series of events sparked by the demonstration eventually led to change.
“I was sitting next to Dr. King in the home of a local family, as we watched and listened to President Johnson, and tears came down his face. He started crying, and we all cried,” he said. “Dr. King said: ‘We’ll make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the voting right will be passed.’ Congress debated it, passed it, and it was signed into law. Some people gave their lives, and the only thing I gave was a little blood.”
Aydin said March goes into great detail about the communication methods used to set up demonstrations, which are the most effective tool for creating change. Aydin said he thinks social networking tools like Twitter can be used to motivate and organize demonstrations, but shouldn’t take the place of them.
“An incident happens in one city, and having the infrastructure to have those protests follow up in a nationwide way is what helps put national pressure on the elected leaders,” he said. “You’ve got to show up. That’s the biggest battle. All these people, if they’re mad, if they’re angry, if there’s something they believe in, they need to be there. They need to make their voice heard through their own presence. You’ve got to use your bodies. Put your bodies on the line to make your voice heard.”
Lewis echoed that sentiment, adding that he thinks we’ve reached a time in our history where our voices are not being used enough.
“The day will come I think, in the not so distant future, when people will look back and say ‘Why were we so quiet?’” he said. “There comes a time when people should make a little noise and push.”
Aydin said he is hopeful that through the book and their discussions at schools, they will help encourage a new generation of activists.
“We’re going to these schools all across the country, as many as we can possibly go to, so that we find that one kid. That one young person who starts the ball rolling, who has that first moment of courage,” he said.
And just as progress was made for civil rights, Lewis said he believes it’s important that people continue to organize to battle other issues; particularly the fight for economic equality.
“The last effort of Martin Luther King, Jr. was something called The Poor People’s campaign,” he said. “He wanted to take people to Washington, representatives of people who’d been left out and left behind. They were white, black, Latino, Asian America, Native American – and he never made it there because of the assassination in Memphis. I think in a real sense we have to pick up where Dr. King left off… It doesn’t make sense that a few people can earn so much and then hundreds of thousands of people in our country don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal or where they’re going to sleep. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not just.”