What was supposed to be a history book is now a modern-day manual.
When Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis introduced the first installment of his best-selling autobiographical graphic novel trilogy March in 2009, it was intended as a look back at the racial discord of America in the 1960s and the civil disobedience that led to legalizing African-American voting rights, interracial marriage, and desegregation, setting the country on a course to electing the first black president.
But in the ensuing years and publication of March: Book 2 in 2015, and now, Book 3, race relations in America have been increasingly strained with unwarranted police shootings of black men, retaliation against officers, and the rise of a presidential nominee giving voice to dormant racists. Suddenly, March is reading more like a guide for navigating and effecting change in today’s climate than of years’ past.
The scenario isn’t lost on the March team–Lewis, coauthor Andrew Aydin, illustrator Nate Powell, and editor Leigh Walton. They spoke with Co.Create at San Diego Comic-Con, on a day that would end with their adding an Eisner Award to their growing cadre of accolades.
“I sometimes feel like I’m reliving a part of my early life, with what is emerging this political season,” says Lewis, who, at 23, was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. “People saying, ‘We’re going to take our country back, close our borders, we don’t want any immigrants coming in,’ and putting people down, because of their race, disability, sexual orientation. It’s frightening that we’ve come to this point.
“A major candidate of one party is running on ‘law and order.’ We heard that theme from Richard Nixon: ‘law and order.’ You may have law, but you don’t have any order,” he adds. “I would like to think that because of social media, the American people are much more informed today than the early days of my life, and that it’s difficult for it to be worse.”
On the other hand, can it be argued that the anger is worse today, because instead of coming from ignorance or the status quo, it’s coming from an overt rejection of existing laws demanding equality?
“For a long time, a great many of these injustices were swept under the rug,” says Aydin, who also serves as Lewis’s digital director and policy advisor. “But because of the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras, now we’re able to show to the world what really happens. And so it may feel like there are more bad things happening, but really, it’s being able to shine a light on them, which is progress. It’s a way for us to deal with it. But if we know about it, we can confront it.
“You have to use the technology and the lessons we’ve spilled out to raise awareness, dramatize the conflict, and come together in a mass movement,” he adds. “But more than inspire the activists to act, March‘s lesson is to make them disciplined and orderly. The ones we’ve talked to, who came out of these experiences, value human life no matter whose it is. And when the congressman talks about seeing each other’s humanity, that’s the end goal–getting every person to not lash out, but to act with love even in the face of hate.”
What social media is unveiling are the nuances of race relations and systematic white and fiscal privilege that never really went away.
“What we’re dealing with now is the beginning of a massive discussion and confrontation regarding privilege and the way it operates as a silent controlling factor,” says Powell. “Because of social media, a relatively small amount of people can have a much broader reach. People in positions of privilege are having to reckon with a discomfort at the shift in the dynamics of their society. What we’re experiencing is their disproportionate response to being forced out of their comfort zones.”
A broader aspect of that confrontation involves how issues of racism, power dynamics, and inequality manifest themselves across the country, not just in the South.
“This is not a story about how the South is racist and needed to be fixed. It’s the story about how the South fixed the nation,” says Walton, who also oversees publicity for March publisher Top Shelf, a division of IDW.
Book 3–already in its second printing after selling out within 24 hours of its official August 1 release–covers Lewis’s experiences as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, crafting a series of innovative nonviolent campaigns in the early ’60s to hurdle systemic barriers to black voter registration–the Freedom Vote of 1963, Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964-against mounting danger, legal tricks, and fractures within the movement.
In 1965, a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, erupted in a televised showdown with police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was badly beaten. It became known as Bloody Sunday and set off a national outcry that paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
“The heroes of this book are southerners,” Walton continues. “People talk about ‘the South will rise again.’ It did. It was in the ’60s and it was called the Civil Rights Movement. That was the South rising up. These are the great heroes of Mississippi, rejecting the white supremacist structure in the South. They were saying, ‘You claim to represent Mississippi, but you don’t. You have a fake power that is only yours because of these barriers that you put up. But here we are, as much a part of Mississippi and America as you, and we demand to be considered the representatives of Mississippi.’
“The colors of civil war on the cover, the blues and grays, are not an accident,” he adds. “This is really about who gets to be the legitimate voice of the South and of America.”
In many respects, March itself was a nonviolent act for its own all-Southern team, which felt increasing responsibility in how to deliver its message.
“Every time we asked whether we should include something in a scene, we put it in,” says Aydin. “We didn’t want to leave anything out. We wanted to show that people in the movement were teenagers and young adults. Kids actually love March because of the realness.
“I wrote March as much for myself as for anyone else,” says Aydin. “When I was working on it, my mother would tell me, ‘Write it for that angry nine-year-old you once were.’ I was raised by a single mother. My father was a Turkish Muslim immigrant who left when I was three, so I was an angry kid and didn’t know how to deal with it. Comics had stories about justice and people who wanted to do the right thing.
“There are countless other young people out there who feel the same way, going through the same things,” says Aydin, who pronounced his ethnicity by growing a beard, in protest to this election’s anti-Muslim xenophobic rhetoric. “With the hate and vitriol being thrown at the children of immigrants right now, I think it’s all the more important that they understand there are heroes out there, and you can make a way out of no way, not by being violent, but by being smart, tactical, and using love as the greatest weapon.”
Adds Powell, “I went into this project having a lifelong attitude that you should never consider your potential readership for the book, because you don’t want it to effect [creative decisions]. By the time Book 1 came out, I realized it had a direction and it became about considering who, why, and when people would be reading this book. Entering Books 2 and 3, we were creating them with the knowledge the story had already incorporated itself into a larger social discussion.”
So how can people apply March tactics to the modern age?
On a grander scale, says Powell, many of these actions worked, because the ideas were creative, original, unexpected, crafted in secret and revealed at the right time to throw opponents off guard. They operated in the middle of a war, functioning nonviolently using tactics and strategies to stay ahead of a structured foe.
“But being creative means you’re not going to throw people a magic bone that allows them to solve problems in precisely the same way as 50 years ago,” he says.
“Each successive leap in nonviolent progress has built upon the acts that happened before,” says Aydin. “One of the key proponents in the national sit-ins was that there was also a boycott going on of stores that wouldn’t sell to African- Americans. So you took one tactic, you added another, and put it all together to put pressure. So if young people today creatively used tactics from that movement, and added social media, that’s how they’ll make the next great leap.”
Ultimately, this is a fight across generations. “The goal should be to create a beloved community, a nation, a society at peace with itself,” says Lewis. “Love, peace, nonviolence should be the way. It’s not a struggle that lasts for one sit-in, one march, a few days, weeks, months, or years. It is a struggle of a lifetime, of many lifetimes. You have to be persistent and consistent, and never give up.”