Representative John Robert Lewis
February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020
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.
A few years ago, I was asked to write a review of the final installment of MARCH, the three-part graphic-novel autobiography of Representative John Lewis. It was a daunting task, attempting to summarize my feelings about such a work. The scope of events it covered was staggering, as the authors held our hands during a walk through the self-narrated history of Mr. Lewis’s life journey. At times that journey was harrowing, as MARCH led us from his humble beginnings in segregated rural Alabama to his call to action in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, through sit-ins at lunch counters in the deep South that led to repeated arrests, and violent opposition to his leadership of peaceful marches which catalyzed a nation to action.
Throughout it all, Mr. Lewis’ calm and assured voice guided readers through a vital chapter of American history, from the perspective of someone who’d been immersed in it at the time and was cognizant of that fact both then and now. For my review, all I could do was surrender to the enormity of his singular epic story and encourage readers to do the same. Personally, however, I still had questions about the intervals between the big moments, the quiet time that doesn’t necessarily make for satisfying drama, but which is more indicative of a tangible life lived by an actual human being.
Now, imagine my surprise when just over a month later I was asked, as a new board member of the ToonSeum, to help chaperone Rep. Lewis and the book’s co-creators during a visit to Pittsburgh for the opening of the exhibit From MLK to MARCH! Sure enough, In October of 2016, I found myself greeting Mr. Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell in the lobby of a Downtown Pittsburgh hotel before leading them to the August Wilson Center for the event. Unexpectedly, they recognized me, not as a ToonSeum rep but instead for the positive book review I’d written. (That’s my own brush with being on the right side of history!) After exchanging pleasantries, we walked to the venue and they were led to the green room where we’d pass a couple of hours before Mr. Lewis would address an audience of admirers.
Three things happened during this time that I’ll never forget. The first is that I got to witness Mr. Lewis’s pleasant bearing in person. For the most part, he was quiet and unassuming. As tired as he must have been from long hours spent promoting his book, he was sharp and spry, and he made time to speak to everyone in a very personable way. When made aware of the food and beverages brought in for the guests, he strongly encouraged everyone present to break bread in communion with him. He even likened it to his days as an activist and how “everyone needs to eat!”
The second thing was that he spoke not just about the book he was there to promote, his MARCH autobiography, but of the shorter comic book that had long ago catalyzed him to civic action. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story prompted a teenaged Lewis to participate in the civil rights movement, and his reverence for it was clear. He’d been inspired by a comic book, he said to a room full of comic-book enthusiasts and creators, bringing home the importance of our passion.
The third thing is that I got to ask Mr. Lewis about the quiet time spent between the big events of his life; he candidly confirmed that the majority of his work over the years wasn’t as exciting or interesting as what most admirers lauded him for, but it was fundamentally just as important. It was time spent wrangling with politicians and lawyers, taking meetings and working out strategies, determining the boundaries of the law before resolving to push against them. There had been a lot of time spent waiting, which had been hard. But he filled that time building relationships, and it was easy to see why he’d been so successful.
Being in that room with John Lewis for those couple of hours was like striding outside of normal time and space. At one point while he spoke, I was vividly aware of how directly adjacent we were to histories the rest of the world takes for granted. John Lewis was to Martin Luther King, Jr. as Alexander Hamilton was to George Washington. Without exaggeration, he was that important to our way of life today and, in ways, far more immediately relevant.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Lewis addressed a full house who’d gathered to seek out his words of wisdom in the days immediately preceding a foreboding presidential election. Despite the traces of a somber collective mood, he provided the inspiration that everyone present needed to hear. And, in his short trip from the hotel lobby to the green room to that stage, he helped me see how history isn’t composed of untouchable idols, but rather it’s comprised of human beings who get tired and need food and fellowship to summon the strength to motivate the next generation of activists and change makers.
I remain humbled that he spent a little quiet time to connect me so directly with history. Thank you, Representative John Lewis for leading the march of progress with poise and dignity. You reminded us what’s essential for making the country better, and I’m hopeful about that future. Maybe one day I’ll inspire someone, through the comics I create, to get into some of the good trouble you valued so highly.
Your own illustrious story has definitely done so, and all Americans are better for it.
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.