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Civil Rights Icon John Lewis On Applying The Lessons Of “March” In A Social Media Age

Back at San Diego Comic-Con to promote March: Book 2, Congressman John Lewis had some heady advice for a nation that still struggles with many of the same issues that he and his civil rights colleagues faced 50 years ago.

“Find a way to get into trouble–necessary trouble. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. I almost died on the bridge. I did not give up, I did not give in. You must not give up, you must not give in. Speak up, speak out, and let’s bring about a non-violent revolution in America.” – Congressman John Lewis

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After two years, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.) was back at San Diego Comic-Con—this time in costume: a trenchcoat and backpack containing two books, toothbrush and toothpaste, and apple. It was a replica of the outfit he wore in 1965 when he and 600 peaceful civil rights marchers were beaten by police while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Known as Bloody Sunday, the event paved the way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After a rousing address to a standing ovation, Lewis, co-author Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell—clasping the hands of children who had attended their panel—lead the 300-plus audience, and others who joined in, through the convention hall, down the stairs, and onto the convention floor publisher Top Shelf’s booth. There they signed copies of March: Book 2, the second installment of the autobiographical graphic novel trilogy about his journey from poor childhood in the Jim Crow South to civil rights leader.

Just as Lewis’s 2013 appearance brought out the fire marshalls, this line had eight security guards helping out. At 75, Lewis is still causing necessary trouble.

March: Book 1 was a juggernaut–spending 40 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List, garnering a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, and Eisner Award nomination. The trio made the talk show rounds–The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show, among others. Actor Stephan James played Lewis in last year’s Oscar-nominated film Selma. The trilogy itself has been optioned for a film. Schools have used it to introduce students to a volatile part of American history and its relevance today.

Barbara Glaeser, a professor of special education at California State University, Fullerton used March: Book One in a six-month research study early last year with a dozen fifth graders, mostly Korean immigrants and reluctant readers, presenting her findings at last summer’s Comic-Con Comic Arts Conference.

Special education professor Barbara Glaeser with Top Shelf founder Chris Staros

“I used March as a way to apply their strategies, discuss the different time periods, and talk about what it’s like to be different than the dominant population and be treated differently,” she said. “How would it feel to be walking beside a bus and have mud thrown on you? Some of those kids were struggling to find the words. I don’t think they had considered it before.”

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March: Book 2 continues Lewis’s journey from the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins through the violent 1961 Freedom Rides and 1963 March on Washington, where, at 23, Lewis was the youngest, and now the only surviving, speaker.

Given the ongoing racism and police brutality plaguing the country, Fast Company asked Lewis, Aydin, and Powell to weigh in on how the lessons of these books apply today, especially in a culture attuned to instant gratification and social media.


John Lewis: “The Struggle of a Lifetime”

March: Books 1 and 2 are still relevant to the issues and concerns today—the lessons, teaching, and philosophy of non-violence, the way to organize protests, how to speak up, how to speak out, how to find a way to get in trouble—good trouble—and make a way out of no way,” said Lewis.

“There are more lessons coming in Book 3. That’s going to be a little more powerful and cutting,” he added. “Book 2 is raw, because of the violence. People were beaten, bloodied, lay dying, but they didn’t give up, become bitter or hostile. They kept their faith, kept their eyes on the prize. And March is saying, `Never give up, never give in, hang in there and be persistent.’

“After reading the three books, people will understand that you have to be patient. I try to tell young people, `Pace yourself. The struggle is not a struggle that lasts a day, or a few weeks, months, or years. It is the struggle of a lifetime to redeem the soul of America and to create the beloved community.”

“Where do we go from here?” asked co-author Andrew Aydin during the panel. “We need an activist generation. You know why we don’t have one? Because they’re at work paying off student debts.” | (L-R) Artist Nate Powell, and co-authors Andrew Aydin and John Lewis at a signing session

Andrew Aydin: “March is a roadmap”

“This is a roadmap, a handbook,” said Aydin, who also serves as Lewis’s digital director and policy advisor. “It’s not just a history, it’s a series of lessons. These are instances of young people today faced with very similar challenges, framed in a different way, but at their core addressing the same issues of inequality.

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“Trying to deal with them today is a frustrating experience for many young people,” he continued. “For them—and myself—it’s important to see there was another generation that had to struggle with this, that was told, `Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.’ That their radical ideas would never take hold, and yet they did it anyway. They need to understand that it’s ok to be frustrated and have older generations tell them, “You don’t get to be onstage. You’re not going to be getting money from these big organizations,’ because that’s how it’s happened before.

“We’re just hoping to back them up, to support them, rally people to their cause, and inform their tactics,” he added. “We hope these books will show them the best of what happened during the civil rights movement, and how to use those tools to more effectively and aggressively target reforms in the country today.”

NATE POWELL: “Harness the Internet”

“A lot of the issues of brutality and continued oppression are systematic issues, and the historical precedent of what was happening 40, 80, 140 years ago are sadly, in some ways, identical to what’s happening now,” said Powell, who won an Eisner for Swallow Me Whole, which has been optioned for a film.

“When we were thinking about structure, we thought of the second book as `The Empire Strikes Back’,” artist Nate Powell told the audience. “In my illustrations, I changed the camera angles, and had the reader as the perpetrator, behind the fists in people’s faces. It really makes you uncomfortable.”

‘What we’ve depicted in March provides an illustrative precedent by which people of all age groups have, across the period of a century, been working together against these systems. Folks can use it as a base to grow upon, move forward, and continue to push back on those same forces.

“The major difference here is the Internet,” he added. “As a positive, the world is so much more connected and transparent, and we’ve seen time and again a level of accountability that happens very quickly, taking advantage of a 24- hour news cycle, and the democratization of journalism. The downside is our digital connection keeps people out of the real world and off the streets. People get really fired up and the challenge is getting them out of their houses and off their phones, and exploiting it in the right way.”

The effectiveness of March’s lessons is illustrated by the following example that Lewis relayed to the audience. Two years ago, the former Klu Klux Klan member who beat Lewis and a 1961 Freedom Ride colleague came to his office. “He said, ‘I’m one of the people who beat you and your seatmate. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?’” said Lewis. “He came with his son, who was in his forties. He was in his seventies. His son started crying. He started crying. Then I started crying. They hugged me first, and then I hugged them. They called me brother, and I called them brothers. I saw the gentlemen three other times. And that’s the power of love and the power of non-violence.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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