The history of the civil rights movement in America isn’t always presented in an accessible way. But in Congressman John Lewis’s 600-page autobiographical graphic novel trilogy March, both the ferocious violence and the haunting stillness of our country’s past take on new resonance. Events like Lewis’s nearly fatal beating on the Edmund Pettus Bridge more than 50 years ago, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the inauguration of President Barack Obama are woven together with incredible detail; the comic book, it turns out, is a great format for conveying history.
The third and final book from Lewis and his two collaborators, Andrew Aydin (a staffer in his congressional office) and Nate Powell, was released Tuesday. The following day, all three men joined MTV News in our podcast studio to discuss it. What follows is an extended account of the conversation you can hear on this week’s edition of "The Stakes" podcast (which you can also listen to below). It has been edited for clarity and length.
First of all, Congressman Lewis, I have to ask — this is the end of the trilogy, and a long storytelling journey for you. How satisfied are you with the final product?
John Lewis: The first time I picked it up, I kissed the book, because it is so complete. It is so whole. It is so moving. It tells the story. Some of it is really painful, but it’s finished. It is finished. And it’s my hope that a generation yet to come will have an opportunity to read [and] digest this book, and use it as a road map — as a way to act, as a way to speak up and speak out, and get involved, and get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.
What does that “necessary trouble” phrase mean?
Lewis: That when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to do something, to say something. You cannot afford to be silent.
Gentlemen, I want to ask you the same question I asked the congressman. You’re at the end of this journey, too. You were along with them the whole way.
Nate Powell: I’ll be the first one to say that going into this project, we knew that this would be a little bigger than some other comics — definitely that I’ve worked on — but we really had no idea what the potential scope of this could be. And once we worked out our process, the third book had so many more creative and editorial demands. We were getting over this threshold of answering the question, “Are comics legitimate as literature? Are comics legitimate in the classroom? Is it a legitimate memoir?” We were glad to play a part in kind of squashing that.
Andrew Aydin: So March: Book One was the first book I ever wrote. And it was the most terrifying process I’ve ever been through. You have such a sacred responsibility when you touch John Lewis’s story, when you touch the story of the movement. You don’t want to leave anything out, but you want to tell a good story so the people will read it and they’re engaged and they don’t fall apart with extraneous details. One of the biggest challenges for us is that people have different accounts. People say different things happened at different times, and when you’re trying to sort through all that, how do you decide what’s right?
One of the great advantages we had is that this is the first set of books about this much time in the movement that had access to the primary documents. Because of the digital changes in the last five or 10 years, so many of the primary records were all made available online. And so when we had a question, we were able to actually go directly to the historical record. So if there was a meeting, and we needed to know more about it, we went to the meeting minutes. And we knew who spoke, and what position they took. We were able to create a vivid picture that painted all of the characters, instead of just focusing on one or two or three or four. And then, at the end, you have to ask yourself: Am I showing everyone’s contribution? Am I explaining to the reader and to the people who might be inspired by this exactly how messy [the activism was] and how many people had to contribute, had to go through pain, had to suffer, in order for the society, and for the culture, and for the movement itself to get to a point where they could make that great leap?
And you know, now I look back on it and it’s like 600 pages and, I mean, my twenties are over, and it’s ... I don’t think I’ll ever do anything more important than this.
I want to get to the comic book form. And I’ll start, Congressman, with a different comic book that you read, when you were about 17 years old: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Can you tell me what that book did for you? What effect it had on you?
Lewis: The book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, I read it when I was about 17-and-a-half or 18. It changed my life. I heard of Martin Luther King Jr. when I was 15 years old. I heard of Rosa Parks. And I met Dr. King in 1958 at the age of 18. I met Rosa Parks ... But to pick up a fun comic book — some people used to call them “funny books” — to pick this little book up, it sold for 10 cents, 12 pages or 14 pages?
Lewis: 14 pages I digested. And it inspired me. And I said to myself, “If the people of Montgomery can do this, maybe I can do something. Maybe I can make a contribution.” Then I heard Dr. King speaking on the radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Robert Lewis, you too can make a contribution. You can get involved!”
So you felt it was a personal narrative. Others may see themselves in March, but in a different way. Vann Newkirk at the Atlantic wrote, “It’s impossible not to see the modern Black Lives Matter movement reflected in the violence.” The violence that’s depicted in the book. You know, you begin the third book with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and Congressman, I just want to ask, how do you hope people today see racial justice, or at least, how do you see, how do you hope that people see the fight for racial justice today reflected in these books?
Lewis: Well, it is my hope that people today will see that, in another time, in another period, when we saw the need for people to speak up, to organize, to mobilize, and to do something about injustice, we came together. We built a coalition of conscience, and that we can do it again, and we can go forward, and help redeem the soul of America.
Nate, I want to ask you about the moment in which it comes around the time of the convention — the 1964 convention, depicted in Book Three. It’s argued that it’s the turning point for the movement for civil rights. Not Montgomery, not Selma, not the March on Washington, not the bombing at the church. Why was that such a pivotal moment in the storytelling, and then how did you feel graphically you needed to depict that?
Powell: I understood on a cognitive and historical level what Congressman Lewis was saying when he was reflecting upon it being, in his opinion, the turning point of the movement. But it wasn’t until really drawing that sequence, seeing it laid out, and even though I know in my mind’s eye the way it’s going to look already, it was actually laying out the convention floor and working through their script in which — despite all their efforts to push themselves into a position of having a voice with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the convention, despite playing by every rule — [they arrive] at the gates to find the doors shut on them. Only then was I really able to understand precisely how that can be construed as the turning point.
Aydin: If you pick up Book Three, you realize that it’s much bigger than everything we’ve done before, because really it’s two books. But we did the two books together so that all of the readers, all the young people, all the people who are trying to understand this history, understand how the Freedom Summer and the convention are so deeply embedded in what happened in Selma. People forget that many of the aspects of the Selma campaign were laid out in response to the church bombing in Birmingham.
And there is, oftentimes, this false notion that the Selma campaign was linear, that it was OK this happened — we chose Selma, we go to Selma, we protest, and then we got the Voting Rights Act. And what’s so important for people today to understand is that it wasn’t linear, that it was messy, it was chaotic, it went one way, it went the other, people had competing ideas, people pursued competing ideas.
And we have to show how that played out, because we’re trying to dispel a lot of these, we call it the nine-word problem. Most students graduate from high school knowing nine words about the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and “I Have a Dream.” And that’s it! And we don’t want to just tell them who the people are, we don’t want to just tell them what happened — we want to show the process by which it formed itself.
A lot of young people, all that history taken into account, are opting not to vote in this election. Their preferred candidate may have lost, and maybe they’ve lost faith in the government to address the needs of their communities. What — and I want to hear from everybody on this, but I’ll start with the congressman — what can they take out of these books?
Lewis: I think, out of these books, young people can understand, and must understand, that we had success, we had failures, but we never gave up. We never gave in. We never became bitter. We didn’t hate. We continued to press on. And that’s what we’re saying: There are some ups, there are some downs, and when you’re not down, you must have the capacity and the ability to get up and keep going.
First time I got arrested, I knew somehow and some way, we would succeed. To go on the Freedom Ride to be beaten and left bloody and unconscious, to be beaten on that bridge in Selma, have a concussion — I thought that I was going to die on that bridge. But somehow and some way, I lived to tell about what happened, and I’ve seen some of the fruits of the labor of so many people, and people must understand that. You cannot give up — you have to be persistent and keep pushing, and press on.
We were singing a song on that bridge, as we crossed that bridge, and we would finally march from Selma to Montgomery: “Pick them up, and lay them down.” And I think March is saying, in effect, pick them up, lay them down, and march on.
Powell: Well, I guess I’d like to speak from the context which sort of lent me part of my social conscience as a teenager and also the means by which to express myself.
I come from the underground, you know, do-it-yourself punk rock subculture, and it has deeply influenced my life. As we’ve all grown into and through our twenties, our thirties, our forties together, you know, typically it’s sort of populated by a lot of folks on the far progressive left, along with, like, real and armchair anarchists and socialists and disaffected Libertarians.
I feel like I’ve lost a little bit of patience for the recurring arguments against voting itself. But particularly with the last five years of work on March, my patience gets a little thinner each time. I’m like, “Boo-hoo!” Parts of mainstream politics are a sham; they’re a game. Do you understand for most of you, you just have to get up and make sure you’re registered and then go take 45 minutes and hopefully do a little homework before that and figure out what’s good for your town, your neighborhood, your state? Boo-hoo at your disillusionment with the process. There is very real blood spilled for you to be able to spend your lunch break casting a vote that may or may not directly affect you, but definitely directly affects millions and millions of other people who are your neighbors.
Aydin: I spent 10 years in professional politics and eight writing comics, and so I look at it from both sides. I don’t understand the logic in being frustrated with a system, so you choose to be a part of the reason why the system is so frustrating. If everybody voted, it wouldn’t be this way. If voting wasn’t important, why would they be spending so much time and so much energy trying to stop you from doing it?
Lewis: I say from time to time that the vote is precious. It’s almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument that we have in a democratic society. And we must use it.
I want to ask you all about Donald Trump. Not necessarily his latest gaffe, or misstatement, or offensive gesture, but what he’s doing to the culture of the United States — the damage that he’s doing. What’s your view — and I’ll start with you, Congressman — on the overall effect that his campaign is having on America?
Lewis: I’m gonna say that I have followed every presidential campaign since the campaign of President Kennedy in 1960. I have never seen or witnessed anything like this. I think he’s dividing the American people. He is not good for America. It’s not good for our standing in the rest of the world. To divide people based on race, a color, a religion, a sexual orientation, it’s just … it’s just wrong. And I would like to think that we have made much more progress, that we’ve come much further, to have someone like a Donald Trump to emerge as the nominee of a major political party.
Aydin: I think people who agree with him have repeatedly made the case that he should be able to say whatever he wants to say, it’s time someone did that. But as we go and speak to the kids, the young people who are reading March, we see the fear, we hear them tell us how scared they are. My father was a Muslim immigrant; when Donald Trump started talking about banning Muslim immigrants from this country, I grew my beard out. My mother hated it. She never wanted me to look particularly “Muslim.” She thought if I grew my beard out that people would know, right? “Don’t make it hard for yourself. Don’t let people know.”
Powell: This is even when you were a teenager.
Aydin: This is even when I was a kid. This was all my life, really. I mean, I started being able to grow a beard at 16, let’s not kid.
Powell: I can tell.
Aydin: What the Congressman talks about with nonviolence I think sometimes seems abstract to people. But for me, it was a mission on the hill to sensitize people, because they don’t know Muslim immigrants. And for the most part, a lot of us just keep our heads down. But if I can engage someone in conversation, someone who maybe does support Donald Trump, or at least isn’t speaking out against him, and I can show him the fear that I have, then maybe I can turn that tide.
But what crystallized the importance of speaking out like that — of making nonviolence not just a tool or a tactic, but a way of life — was in San Diego [at Comic-Con]. One of the young girls who marched with us was wearing a hijab, and she came up to me afterward because I talked about my beard, and I talked about why I was doing it, and she came up and she gave me a hug, and she was crying. And she said, “Thank you. You have no idea how the other students treat me because they’re shown that this is OK by Donald Trump. Thank you for speaking out.” That little girl should not have to go through that, and that is the price we pay because of the way Donald Trump is running his presidential campaign. And so we have an obligation to do everything we can to protect that little girl.
We’re now on the verge of potentially electing the first woman as president of the United States. Maybe you guys are not the ones to tell this story, but it should be — one would think — a story told, should Secretary Clinton win the election, about the women’s struggle for similar kinds of rights. I want to ask, intersectionally, how women obviously play a major role in March ... How do you feel like that story should be told, and frankly, should it be a comic book?
Aydin: Well, that’s a wonderful question.
Lewis: It’s a great, great question.
Aydin: If I’m totally honest, there’s an annual that comes out by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that’s going to come out on Election Day, and they asked me to submit a short story — Nate’s actually drawing the cover — and the story I chose to write was the story of Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for president in 1872. And she was the first woman to own a brokerage on Wall Street, and she was also the first woman to ... her and her sister actually co-owned a newspaper in New York City. And so when she’s running for president, she’s got this preacher in Brooklyn, I believe, who was chastising her for saying, you know, this free love and women’s rights, it’s hogwash. But at the same time [he] is having an affair with another man’s wife. So her paper printed it. And as she’s running for president, they arrest her, and put her in jail. This is four days before the election. And she spends Election Day in jail. So the story I wrote was her experience, just those — it’s four pages, I didn’t have a lot of room — her arrest and what it was like for her to go to jail. Just a small moment.
But it raises this unbelievable historical parallel, where every time a woman has run for president, every time she’s pointed out the hypocrisy of men — they’ve tried to throw her in jail.
“Lock her up, lock her up.” Congressman?
Lewis: Even in the civil rights movement, there were so many unbelievable women. They never, ever received the credit that they should have received. They did all of the, and I cannot say it, they did all of the dirty work. Hard work. Some people think that [it was] Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea to have a boycott. It was a black woman, a teacher, who said we should boycott the buses. You had people like Fannie Lou Hamer; Delta, Mississippi. Some people know Rosa Parks, they know Daisy Bates in Arkansas, but every … Ruby Doris Smith, Diane Nash, countless individuals. Septima Clark, doing all of the work. Paving the way.
And maybe, just maybe, there should be a graphic novel dealing with the contribution of the women of the civil rights movement, to tell their story. The pain, the hurt. They raised their children. Some were working as maids, but when they left those kitchens, those homes, they made it to the mass meetings. And they put their bodies on the lines, also.
Well, you have your next assignment, gentlemen.
Powell: On it.
Listen to the conversation on this week's "The Stakes."