In 2016, the ToonSeum sponsored an exhibition at the August Wilson Center of African American Culture. “From MLK to March: Civil Rights in Comics and Cartoons” was co-curated by art historian Sylvia Rhor Samaniego and political cartoonist Rob Rogers. The exhibition traced key moments in the civil rights movement from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott through the present day in comics and cartoons.
The show was bookended by two keys pieces: a 1957 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” which Rep. Lewis often credited as inspiring his initial activism, and March, the award-winning graphic novel trilogy about Rep. Lewis’s life. March was also inspired by the earlier comic book. March was the brainchild of Andrew Aydin, Rep. Lewis’s digital and policy advisor, co-author, friend and comics enthusiast, and was illustrated by Nate Powell.
As part of the programming for the exhibition, the March team – Rep. Lewis, Aydin and Powell – came to Pittsburgh to tell their story on October 8, 2016. The visit was the result of a collaborative effort between the ToonSeum and Sweetwater Center for the Arts with support from The Pittsburgh Foundation and Carlow University. As part of our ongoing efforts to honor the legacy of Rep. Lewis, the ToonSeum would like to share two remembrances from that day by ToonSeum president Marcel Walker and curator Sylvia Rhor.
When Marcel Walker asked me asked me to write a short remembrance about Representative John Lewis, I was reluctant to say yes. I did not march with John Lewis. I did not struggle alongside Rep. Lewis in the halls of Congress. I am not one of the privileged people who could call him father, brother or friend. I had only admired him from afar, first learning about him when I was a Martin Luther King Scholar in college, and then later through my research on the civil rights movement, and, of course, by following him in the news. I was just lucky enough to share space with him on that day in October 2016, when he, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (the March team) visited Pittsburgh and shared their story.
Without a doubt, I will always remember walking through the exhibition with Rep. Lewis and the rest of the March team and consider it a highlight of my career. At one point, as we made our way around the gallery, I was geeking out with Andrew over the first edition of the 1957 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story and boasting how I had scored my copy on Ebay. Rep. Lewis listened, nodded and quietly added: “Dr. King gave me my copy.”
And that was exactly the point: While I had learned about these civil rights events through archives, research and photos, John Lewis had lived it. He had been one of the people who shaped the narrative, who had changed history. As we moved from cartoon to cartoon, he recalled seeing the original image in the newspaper or participating in the event which inspired the cartoon. I was humbled to stand next to the man who marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the man who shared the stage with Dr. King at the March on Washington, the man who made the Voting Rights Act a reality. The man who has rightfully become known as the compass and the conscience of the civil rights movement. But what was most astonishing to me was that despite his heroic achievements and legendary status, he was approachable and kind. John Lewis may have been the person that will live on in the iconic photos of the civil rights movement, but he was also the person who joked with visitors as he ate a sandwich in the green room at the August Wilson Center, the person who patiently signed books for hours and listened to each person with patience and respect, and the man who, after a very long day, nodded off a bit in my car on the way back to the hotel. And when he spoke from the stage, he spoke from his heart and memory – and never once consulting notes –and he connected with every person in the crowd. Even those seated high in the balcony recall feeling that he was talking directly to them on that day.
Representative Lewis’ death feels especially heavy right now. It seems like we lost him just when we need him most in this country. Voting Rights are once again under threat; police brutality and violence against Black and Brown people is relentless; and people of color are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. So, with all of this on my mind, when I heard the news of Rep. Lewis’s death. I said to my sister, in the most childlike terms, “It feels like the bad guys are winning.” She responded by sending me a picture of one of my nieces, hunkered down and reading March. Seeing that tween girl with her nose in his book, learning about John Lewis for the first time, gave me hope. Rep. Lewis often recalled how reading the 1957 MLK comic book – an activity that seems so mundane – inspired him and ignited a lifetime of indefatigable good troubling. I hope it does the same for my niece and for all “the future children of the movement” (to whom March is dedicated).
The photo of my niece also made me realize that remembering John Lewis is not about how well you knew him personally, but rather what you do to live in honor of him. While those closest to him will mourn him on a more profound level, those of us who followed him from afar and who have benefited from his lifetime of work and optimism must dust ourselves off and serve in his name. We all have a role to play in ensuring that this country lives up to its ideals.
What will your role be? Maybe you will join a Black Lives Matter protest. Maybe you will start a difficult conversation with someone you know. Maybe you will register to vote. Maybe you will run for office. Or maybe you will sit down to read a comic book or graphic novel – sometimes that small spark can help light the future.
For another recollection of Rep. Lewis, please read the companion tribute by ToonSeum president Marcel Walker.