A graphic novel portraying the civil rights movement of the 1960s is the choice for Pierce County Reads, the annual community-wide reading program.
“March” by civil rights icon and current U.S. Congressman John Lewis is a three volume series co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.
The events kick off Thursday at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma with a presentation on the civil rights movement and a panel discussion.
THE STORY OF ‘MARCH’
The idea for “March” began in the summer of 2008 when the Georgia congressman told Aydin about the 1957 comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.”
Aydin runs Lewis’s social media accounts.
The comic book was influential on the civil rights movement, Lewis told Aydin.
“That was when we had the ah-ha moment,” Aydin said. “John Lewis should write a comic book.”
The 1957 comic told of the early civil rights movement and laid out the case for nonviolence as a means of protest.
“Our goal is to once again inspire a generation of young people to use non-violence,” Aydin said.
Book one of “March” came out in August 2013. Book two came out in 2015 and book three in 2016. By then it had become something of a phenomenon.
“It shot straight to the top. It sold out, nation-wide, in a day,” Aydin said of book three.
Book one starts with two boys and their mother visiting Lewis’s office on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009. The boys are surprised when the congressman says hello and gives them a tour.
“One of my favorite things to do in the office is to sit and listen to when (Lewis is) talking to kids and the questions they ask,” Aydin said.
Aydin was with Lewis at the capitol that day in 2009.
“All day he was telling me these stories. And he was saying ‘If Bobby could only see this. If Martin could only see this’,” Aydin recalled. “It was a special moment in history to witness. But it also made it so clear in a way I don’t think I would have seen otherwise exactly how important that event was in the long arc of history.”
WORDS AND PICTURES
The story of “March” comes from Lewis’s own recollections as well as other sources of the well-documented but not often told stories of the civil rights movement.
“Being able to ask John Lewis all those crucial details pointed us in directions we would have never been able to go in,” Aydin said.
At age 78, Lewis is the last surviving of the major leaders of the civil rights movement.
“I’m dumbfounded that I get to spend time with and make something great with a living legend, an icon,” Powell said of Lewis.
The books’ title has a three-fold meaning, Powell said. “Most importantly, it’s an imperative, it’s a command to march.” The title also refers literally to the marches of the movement as well as the Selma to Montgomery marches in March, 1965 including the one that became known as Bloody Sunday.
“March” provides both a history lesson and the emotions and drama that surrounded the civil rights movement. It goes way beyond what Aydin calls the “nine word problem” of the movement’s history.
“Most high school students graduate knowing only nine words about the Civil Rights Movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I have a dream.”
Though he grew up in the south Powell said, “I thought I had this basic, working knowledge of the civil rights movement.
“It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and got started on this project that I realized how significant it was that I had only the vaguest notion of anything past these basic bullet points and any sense of continuity and how they tied to my own life.”
The three books are not glorified, self-congratulatory accounts. They show the conflicts and the defeats inside the movement.
“We wanted to show that these were conflicted individuals who were trying to do the right thing,” Aydin said.
A good section of book two is devoted to the 1963 March on Washington. It’s famous for MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis was the fourth and youngest speaker that day. The powerful speech he delivered was an edited version of a much stronger one that others in the movement asked him to tone down.
“The White House, the religious leaders, the labor leaders…they were all worried what these college students would say,” Aydin said. “That’s a great example of the power that young people have when they are willing to speak up for what they believe.”
The original speech is published in the book as an addendum.
Powell’s work started after Lewis and Aydin had written the books’ script.
“Literally drawing out emotion,” Powell said of his part.
For example, the youthful John Lewis was told by his father to stay home from school and help with the family’s farm harvest. Instead, Lewis, with a strong drive to learn, would hide under a porch and then make a run for it when the school bus came, much to his father’s displeasure.
“The tension, anticipation, the desire, and the fear of the consequences – that’s the meat of it – turning those two sentences into two pages,” Powell said. “If you’re not going to utilize those special comic powers, why make a comic?”
Aydin and Powell say an event like Pierce County Reads, which includes appearances by them and many others in programs over two months (see box) creates an opportunity to have conversations between generations.
“We need to be able to come together as a community and share dialogue over non-violence, over the idea of equality, justice and fairness,” Aydin said. “These community conversations often bring out stories of both the movement and racism.”
Programs give young people an opportunity to have new heroes introduced to them, Aydin said.
“It’s OK to stand up for what you believe in,” Aydin said. “To take a moral, virtuous stand.”
For Powell, the takeaway is that social gains cannot be taken for granted.
“This is a constant struggle,” Powell said. “You just don’t have to correct something once. You have to be vigilant about it.”
Powell’s six-year-old daughter has been requesting the books be read to her.
“It’s been a very powerful tool to equip her with in terms of understanding the necessity of making good trouble, of getting in the street, of staying loud and staying committed to what concerns you,” he said.
Pierce County Reads events
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
What: Learn about the history of Tacoma’s civil rights movement through the Washington State History Museum’s exhibit and panel discussion featuring former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and documentary filmmaker Sid Lee.
A Conversation with Ijeoma Oluo
When: 1 p.m. March 31
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW
What: New York Times Best Selling Seattle author of “So You Want to Talk about Race?” Ijeoma Oluo will discuss the challenges and struggles of talking about racial topics.
Living History: A Special After-Hours Event
When: 6:30 p.m. April 13
Where: University Place Pierce County Library, 3609 Market Place W., Suite 100.
What: Explore the civil rights movement through the experiences of local residents. Engage in one-on-one discussions. Participants include Moss, former Tacoma city manager James Walton, former Washington Department of Social and Health Services head Lyle Quasim, and former Washington State Senator Rosa Franklin.
When: 7 p.m. May 11.
Where: Pacific Lutheran University’s Olson Auditorium, 124th St. S.
What: “March” co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell in Tacoma and Congressman John Lewis via video. Attendees can meet the creative team and get books signed.