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08/23/2013

1963 Washington March veteran inspires new generation with comic book

March Book One cover (300dpi)

Photo of John Lewis book cover courtesy of Top Shelf Comix.

He is the only surviving speaker from the famous March on Washington that took place 50 years ago this weekend, a history-making event highlighted by Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech.

American Congressman John Lewis went from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the corridors of power in the U.S. Capitol, from getting beat up by state troopers to getting the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

John Lewis by Marion Trikosko 1964-04-16

John Lewis was a civil rights student leader in 1964. Photo courtesy Top Shelf Comix/Marion Trikosko


Now, to inspire a new generation he tells his story of his civil rights battles in a comic-style memoir, the first of a three-part graphic novel entitled “March.”

“The first time I got arrested I felt free, I felt liberated,” Lewis said in a recent radio interview. “We all can get in the way. We all can get into good trouble, necessary trouble, to change things.”

In the first instalment of his trilogy, Lewis tells of his youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his early years as a student militant, fighting segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins.

Here are three excerpts from the book's pages that talk about his dreams as a child, his first introduction to the principles of non-violence and his first arrest:

March-interior-hi-res-027

March-interior-hi-res-077
March-interior-hi-res-103
Book excerpts courtesy of Top Shelf Comix

 Lewis chose to tell his story in a graphic novel format because he says decades ago he was inspired to join the civil rights movement thanks to a comic book published in the late 1950s called “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story”  about the 1955 bus boycott in Alabama.

Lewis said that book inspired him to “sail against the wind” and not fear even being arrested for his beliefs and actions.

At just 23 years old, when he was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Lewis stood alongside King in front of more than a quarter-million people for the historic Washington event in August 1963. 

 “We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” Lewis told the crowd. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?.”  (You can watch a video of his speech here.)

More radical than the older leaders on the stage with him – in fact, Lewis had even toned down his original draft which talked about “revolution”   -- Lewis made clear he had misgivings about the proposed 1964 Civil Rights Act for not offering enough protection from violence in the South.

Nevertheless, the massive march was credited with spurring passage of the Act and in 1965, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ironically, just this June the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a crucial component of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that given the racial progress made in recent decades, Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to oversight.

Lewis was typically eloquent in his denunciation of that ruling.

“The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

 “It gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, 'Come and walk in my shoes.'”

John Lewis by Eric Etheridge 600 must credit photog
U.S. Congressman from Georgia John Lewis today.  Photo courtesy Top Shelf Comix/Eric Etheridge

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Julian Sher is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter for the Star and can be reached at jsher@thestar.ca and on Twitter @juliansher

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