'The Young People Will Save Our Country': Rep. John Lewis And 'March' Co-Author On Struggle And Hope

Oct 9, 2019

The graphic novel March tells the story of the life of Democratic Rep. John Lewis, one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement. Lewis chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was one of the principal organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the march across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

March was written by Lewis himself, along with his adviser Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell. The first volume is this year's selection for the "Vermont Reads" statewide community reading program.

Lewis and Aydin spoke at the Flynn Center in Burlington on Monday and Tuesday. Before their talk on Monday, they spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb about their graphic novel and their hopes for the country.

Listen to the audio of VPR's conversation with Lewis and Aydin above; click here to listen to highlights from Monday's event, via Vermont Edition.

Lewis said that they chose the medium of comics to tell his story because of its accessibility and appeal to young people, pointing to his own experience.

"When I was very young, growing up in rural Alabama, I read a comic book. It was called Martin Luther King ... and the Montgomery Story. And this little book sold for 10 cent. It inspired me," Lewis said. "But Andrew came to me one day and said, 'We should do a comic book.' And it's here, and there's people all over the world [that] are reading the book."

"Comics have a power to make things come alive," added Ayden. "And the civil rights movement is one of those stories that we tend to distance ourselves from, because we see it in newsreel footage; we see it in black-and-white images that are from the third-person perspective. And by getting it into the comics, we can make it a first-person perspective. We can make it John Lewis' perspective."

More from NPR's Code Switch — "Graphic Novel Depicts John Lewis' 'March' Toward Justice" [Aug. 31, 2013]

The congressman said that the first time he saw his story in illustrated form, he had a strong emotional reaction.

"It became real," Lewis said. "It was like reliving what happened to some of my friends, colleagues, some of the people that I marched with, [was] jailed with and beaten with."

John Lewis, foreground, speaks during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala., on May 23, 1961, after being beaten during the Freedom Rides. He is pictured here with, from left, James Farmer, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King.
Credit Associated Press

Lewis also spoke about how the extraordinary peril he faced due to his activism affected his family when he was young.

"My mother and father worried a great deal," Lewis said. "When I left to go to school, miles away from rural Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee, my mother would always say something like, 'When you get back to the dorm, look in the closet, look under the bed.'

"They didn't think I was going to make it," Lewis continued. "They didn't think I would survive. But through it all, I'm a living witness of what happened and how it happened."

In the current day, Lewis said he is optimistic for the future of the country, thanks to the burdgeoning activism he sees in a new generation. 

"The young people will be our salvation," Lewis said. "The young people will save our country, save democracy, save the Constitution, and help make this little piece of real estate we call America better for all of us — and maybe inspire people around the world to stand up, to be brave, bold and courageous."