Members Only: An Evening With John Lewis

September 18, 2013
Location: Knight Conference Center

Guests: Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

By Christyn Enser and Sharon Shahid

WASHINGTON — In a special Members Only program at the Newseum Sept. 18, Rep. John Lewis told a spellbinding story to a captivated audience about his lifelong fight against racial segregation, the subject of his comic book-style memoir titled "March."

"March" is the first in a trilogy of graphic novels that Lewis is writing about his life.

Lewis's story as a public servant and civil rights legend began in tiny Troy, Ala., where "White Men" and "Colored Men" signs were the status quo, and his mother advised him, "Don't get in the way."

"My mother always told me I had a hard head," Lewis said. "I didn't like those signs. I didn't like riding on those broken-down school buses that sometimes didn't make it to school. I didn't like seeing the hand-me-down books. I wanted to change things."

Lewis said his love for raising chickens on his father's 110-acre farm made him consider the ministry, and led to his first nonviolent protest. He and his siblings often gathered their chickens in the yard, where Lewis would deliver a sermon to the congregation of poultry.

"I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to tended to listen to me better than some of my colleagues," he said.

Lewis, who had been severely beaten in the 1950s and 1960s as a leader of student marches, protests and Freedom Rides, said that his first nonviolent protest was against his parents, because they wanted to have chicken for dinner.

Lewis credited Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 as his first inspiration to join the civil rights movement at age 16. He said her actions prompted him to try to get a library card and check out books at Troy's public library but was told the library was for whites only. In 1998, Lewis returned to the library as a six-term U.S. congressman to sign copies of his book, "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," for an integrated audience. During that visit, he finally received a library card.

Co-author Andrew Aydin, a member of Lewis's Washington staff, spent years trying to persuade the congressman to write a book about the civil rights movement. Lewis relented after Aydin agreed to write the book with him.

The idea of a comic book format was Aydin's, who is also an avid fan of graphic novels. Aydin said people originally laughed at the idea, but Lewis told him about the 1957 comic book "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," which has inspired civil rights protests in South America, South Africa, Vietnam, and during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

"The characters in this story are real people," Aydin explained. "They were more heroes than anyone I've ever seen in a comic book. They were fearless, their cause was just, their spirit was true."

Aydin called "March" more than a graphic novel, but a chance to educate the next generation. Lewis said the only place children will see the segregation signs of his youth will be in books, museums or on video.

"The signs that I saw growing up are gone, and they will not return. Our country is a different country. It's a better country, and we are a better people," he said.

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