The civil-rights icon and his book collaborators will be in Bellevue on Friday to discuss the book trilogy, which covers the period from about 1954 to 1965.
Trying to tell the story of the civil-rights movement in comic-book form is a little unorthodox, but so is John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia who is at the center of the project.
The book he and one of his staff members set out to write eight years ago is now a trilogy. The third book, “March: Book Three” (Top Shelf Productions), is just out, and Lewis will be in Bellevue to talk about it Friday, along with co-author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, whose illustrations make their words live and breathe.
The story they tell took place more than half a century ago, but it is relevant for anyone who wants to understand the United States today, both background and civics lesson for our own turbulent time.
‘March’ Books Talk
What: Discussion of award-winning “MARCH” graphic novel trilogy
Who: Congressman and civil- rights leader John Lewis, writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell
When: Friday, Aug. 19, 3-5 p.m.
Where: King County Library System, Bellevue Branch
Other: Books will be available for purchase and signing.
If you can’t make it: The event also will be livestreamed on YouTube.
This is a book for young people, many of whom don’t know the history, Lewis said in a phone interview this week. He was inspired by a short comic book he read as a teen, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” He hopes his trilogy will be a road map for today’s young people, encouraging them to use nonviolence in their struggles and to have hope.
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The books have been best sellers, widely used by schools and colleges and highly praised. A reader needs all three books to follow the movement from about 1954 to 1965, but as the movement intensifies, so does the content of the books, which portray in words and art the violent pushback against change. “When I saw the first copy of Book Three, I had to put it down,” Lewis said. The drawings especially were an emotional challenge, but necessary to telling of the story.
The first book opens with Lewis getting ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in 2009. Periodically the view shifts to that day as the civil-rights story progresses through the three books, and that contemporary thread ends with the new president handing Lewis a card signed, “Because of you, John.”
The forward flashes show what the struggle accomplished; the rest of the books show where we were as a country and what it took to improve our nation.
Lewis is an ideal guide because of where his life began and because he seems to have been everywhere and in the middle of everything during the movement.
His parents were sharecroppers in rural Alabama. They eventually bought land of their own and, like his siblings, he worked from a young age and was expected to miss school at planting and harvesting time. But he’d hide out and make a run for the school bus even while knowing that would anger his father.
When he’d ask about the deep inequality he saw, Lewis said, “My folks said to me that’s the way it is, don’t get in the way, don’t get into trouble.” But he eventually got into what he calls, “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
His bus passed well-equipped white schools on the way to the black school. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school segregation violated the Constitution, Lewis was 14 and joyful at the prospect of a better education.
But change wouldn’t happen so easily. He saw his state elect a governor, George Wallace, who promised at his inauguration in 1962, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In college, Lewis got involved in efforts to desegregate lunch counters, buses, public bathrooms. He marched for voting rights, which became a central goal of many people in the movement. He was jailed multiple times, beaten bloody and hospitalized.
Lewis became the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was a leader of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, and he spoke at the March on Washington. He met privately with President Johnson just before Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“It was the last day of the movement as I knew it,” Lewis says in the third book. He was only 25 years old.
The trilogy goes beyond his experiences. It is deeply researched and written with a level of detail that allows the reader to see interactions among the major figures of that era, their collaborations, arguments, fears and hopes for the movement.
Looking back, it can seem that the movement in the 1950s and ’60s was a logical progression of events and actions controlled by forceful people with superhuman levels of foresight and fortitude. But it wasn’t like that at all, especially not the super- human part. The leaders and participants were often frightened and unsure, but they made up for that with courage and determination. The “March” books capture the human details, as well as the dramatic events.
The ’60s activists are seen as heroes today. At the time they were called everything but that by many fellow Americans who saw them as a destructive force trampling on the tranquillity of their communities. We owe them a lot for trampling on a tranquillity built on the virtual enslavement of black Americans.
Part of what we owe is a commitment to do our part to push against the erosion of their successes, and to stand for a better nation than we inherited.