Democratic Congressman John Lewis is one of the last true American heroes we have still living. As congressman for Georgia’s 5th district since 1987, Lewis has served the people of his state with great strength and integrity. One of Congress’ staunchest liberal members, Lewis supported gay rights and universal health care, came out in opposition to the first Iraq War in 1991 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and was the first member of the House of Representatives to call for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over his warrant-less wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
Prior to the beginning of his political career, Lewis was one of the most integral figures in the Civil Rights Movement. He was the youngest member of the “Big Six” group of black leaders that worked tirelessly to bring about great change in the American societal and political structure that had been oppressing African-Americans for centuries. One of the key moments in the history of the movement was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place in our nation’s capital, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial.
Congressman Lewis has teamed up with Top Shelf Productions for March, a trilogy of graphic novels documenting his lifelong role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement”, March, Book One introduces the reader to John Lewis as an optimistic 25-year-old during the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that reached a horrifying conclusion on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge when Lewis and other peaceful, unarmed marchers were greeted with violent resistance from state and local authorities armed with tear gas and billy clubs. A brutal blow to Lewis’ head sends us hurtling forward 45 years to the cold winter morning of January 20, 2009 – the day America’s first black president was inaugurated.
Upon reaching his Congressional office to greet relatives who came down for President Obama’s inauguration, Lewis is surprised by the entrance of an Atlanta woman who brought her two sons to his office to show them firsthand an important part of their history and struggle for freedom. He tells the children about how he was the sixth person to speak at the March on Washington and how he was the last of the original speakers still living. A question from the kids about why he had so many fake chickens in his office leads Lewis into telling the story of how he grew up the son of a sharecropper on a farm in Pike County, Alabama.
Young John was given the task of tending to his father’s chicken crop. He spent so much time with them that he could tell each chicken apart and even gave them names. The job also taught him to be industrious, building a makeshift incubator to help cut down on the number of bad eggs being laid by the chickens. John’s family may have owned a nice farm, but they hardly had any money to their name. Lewis talks about how instrumental the Bible and his childhood dream of becoming a preacher was in molding him into the person he is today.
Once he grew exhausted of raising chickens and becoming attached to them only to see them slaughtered for his family’s dinner, Lewis began concentrating more on his studies in school. He took a greater notice of the world around him and wanted to become involved in a civil rights movement should one arise, despite the protestations of his parents who preferred not to rock the boat. Taking a trip up north with his uncle exposed John to a world far different from the racism he encountered frequently living in rural Alabama. He saw black and white people alike living together and treating each other as equals. Once he returned home to the farm things were never again the same for John Lewis, or “Bob” as his family called him.
John wanted to attend school and get a real education, but his family couldn’t always afford it and demanded he stay home and help work the farm. Thus he would have to hide from his parents and make mad dashes for the school bus every day just so he could go. Although his father didn’t approve of this behavior, he never did much to discourage it, outside of the occasional stern warning. Once segregation was ruled to be unconstitutional, things really began to change for John, but the course he would ultimately take in life was set the day he heard a sermon by Dr. King on the radio. The national mood towards racial equality was undergoing a serious sea change and the segregationist hardliners were not going to go down without a fight.
In one saddening passage, Lewis recounts how 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered and his body dumped in a river all because he said “bye, baby” to a white woman. Despite the eyewitness testimony of a black farmer, Till’s killers were set free by an all-white jury. The killers later boasted of their crime in an issue of the magazine Look. Lewis continues on to the story of Montgomery, Alabama woman Rosa Parks, who on December 1, 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Parks’ arrest compelled Dr. King to start a boycott of the buses in Montgomery. Lewis and his family heard about the boycott on the radio and felt like they were now a part of what was going on. The Civil Rights Movement had officially begun.
Congressman Lewis’ amazing story is true history written with lightning and brought to life with passion and soul. March is rendered in gorgeous, painterly black and white artwork by Bloomington, Indiana-based Nate Powell (the Eisner Award-winning Swallow Me Whole), and Lewis is joined on writing duties by Andrew Aydin, a congressional staffer who works in Lewis’ office handling telecommunications and technology policy in addition to new media. Prior to that Aydin had served as Rep. Lewis’ communications director and press secretary during his re-election campaigns in 2008 and 2010.
Aydin and Lewis found the perfect vehicle in telling the congressman’s story as he recounts it to interested children he hopes will continue to fight for the dreams of himself and many others long after he’s gone. The language is so simple yet elegant that it reads like poetry, and having watched interviews with Rep. Lewis in the past I can hear them being intoned in his deep, rich voice. Powell’s art bleeds from the page with all of the pain and hope of the Civil Rights Movement; if given the opportunity I would want to have many of these pages enlarged, framed, and displayed for all time in an art museum. It is just that good.
Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, March, Book One is a visually dazzling portrait of an important moment in the life of this great country as seen through the eyes of a man who found the courage in himself to fight for what he believed in on the streets and in the halls of Congress.
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