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Representatives John Lewis and Susan Davis talk with ECM on civil rights and voting rights

“Comics can change history.” – Andrew Aidyn, coauthor

By Nadin Abbott

Photos by Tom Abbott

July 21, 2013 (San Diego)—Congressman John Lewis (D-GA-5) came to San Diego Comicon International to launch his story from the Civil Rights movement. This graphic novel is the first in a trilogy put out by Top-Shelf called March. It will be released to the general public next month.

“This is another way, another method of reaching people, telling the story, making it come alive,” the Congressman said, “especially for young people.”

The Civil Rights struggle is 50 to 60 years in the past.  For many of the young people, signs of “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, and “white only” bathrooms and water fountains are something that just exists in photographs.

While this is a testament of how far society has shifted, Lewis wants to be sure that the younger generation knows how times have changed.

ECM asked Congressman Lewis about the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal, which evokes memories of the Federal Bureau of  Investigations (FBI) tracking Rev. Martin Luther King under Director J Edgar Hoover.

“I am deeply concerned when there is the possibility of violating the privacy of people,” said Lewis. “Eavesdropping on our citizens, we saw it during the ‘50s, during the ‘60s when people spied on the civil rights movement and made it almost impossible for people to do their own work in a peaceful and non violent way.”

Lewis said a staffer came up with the idea to write a comic book, to which he replied initially, “A comic book?” That staffer, Andrew Aydin, is a coauthor of the book, along with Nate Powell (photo, right, with Congresswoman Susan Davis).  Aydin said he considers Lewis a friend and still works for the Congressman.

Aydin reminded the Congressman that in 1957 A Montgomery Story was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It was a short comic book, only 14 pages:

Originally the comic, detailing the Montgomery bus boycott, was distributed all over the South and inspired many peaceful protest actions. What today we know as the peaceful methods inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, were then called “The Montgomery Method.”

“It reminded me that a group of young people had read the book and got involved in the sit-ins,” Aidyn said.  Those included now well known Greensboro South Carolina action in February of 1960.

The comic book also changed history. It has been translated into Spanish, going to Latin America and Southern California during the Grape Boycott era with Cesar Chavez. It was also translated into Farsi. More recently it was translated into Arabic, and distributed at Tahrir square.  As Aydin later explained during the panel, “Comics can change history.”

He added that he hopes that “hundreds of thousands of young people across America and across the world pick up this book and be inspired to engage in non violent, direct action….When they see something that is not right, that it is not just that they will be moved to protest.”

This story was written by “three guys from the south, two white and one African American came together to tell a story.”

Regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin, Congressman Lewis said that yesterday he spoke with the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

He added, “nothing has moved me more since the murder of Emmett Till on August the 28th of 1955. I was 15 years old when that happened. And there is a lot of pain in America today, a tremendous amount of hurt.” This is regardless of race, color, creed or gender, he noted. “This is touching the very soul of a lot of people. We have made a lot of progress, but we are not there yet.”

He also said that many of our young people “cannot even conceive of the whole question of race.” We have to move the country to a place where race no longer matters, he believes.

Asked about the Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, the Congressman repled, “There is a movement within the Congress on the part of Democrats and some Republican members to come together like we did in 2006.”

He added, that “I like to keep my eye on the prize. I think that we will do it.”

The high court struck down a provision requiring Congressional preclearance for any election law changes in states and communities with a history of discrimination. The Court held that Congress needs to update the list of communities and states requiring pre-cleareance, something that has not been done in decades.

Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) stopped by the booth where Congressman Lewis and the other authors were signing copies of March. Davis agreed to give ECM a short interview.

We asked Davis about the preclearance issue regarding the Voting Rights Act.

“We have some colleagues on the other side of the aisle who would like to make some changes,” she said, but added, “This is solvable, it is one of the more solvable problems.”

Davis also talked of the other reforms that Congress should be looking at, including a “universal vote by mail at least for federal elections.” California allows this, but 22 other states impose restrictions on voting by mail.

The Congresswoman added, “We know that people, in particular ethnic groups, are comfortable in going over the ballot….The focus on voting rights is great, and there are changes that can be made in the country,” she concluded.

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As reported in yesterday's U-T San Diego, tens of thousands of people marched to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and down the National Mall on Saturday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of King's famous speech and pledging that his dream includes equality for gays, Latinos, the poor and disabled. The evennt was an homage to a generation of activists who endured fire hoses, police abuse and indignities to demand equality for African-Americans. Congressman John Lewis, the author of "March."  was one of those. Congressman Lewis, the only surviving speaker at the event from the 1963 March on Washington, railed against a recent Supreme Court decision that effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis was a leader of a 1965 march, where police beat and gassed marchers who demanded access to voting booths. "I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Ala., for the right to vote," he said. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us. You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You've got to stand up. Speak up, speak out and get in the way." 

"March" is #1 on New York Times Bestseller List

Congressman John Lewis' "March (Book One)" has just made #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, as well as #1 on the Washington Post Bestseller list. I look forward to writing a review of this book for the East County Magazine and EURweb.

"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America"

Nothing would please me more than to write the review of this comic book by Congressman John Lewis for the East County Magazine, as I had earlier written a review of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America for EURweb, in which Congressman Lewis wrote the foreword. In the foreword to "Without Sanctuary" Congressman Lewis states: "Without Sanctuary brings to life one of the darkest and sickest periods in American history. As a young child in rural Alabama, I heard stories about lynchings and about nightriders coming through, intimidating and harassing black people. At the time it all seemed nightmarish, unreal - even unbelievable. The photographs in this book make real the hideous crimes that were committed against humanity. Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe - don't want to believe - that such atrocities happened in America not so long ago. These photographs bear witness to the hangins, burnings, castrations, and torture of an American holocaust. Despite all I witnessed during the height of the civil rights movement, and all I experienced of bigotry and hate during my lifetime, these photographs shocked me. What is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens? This book cannot answer my question, but it does fill me with deep sadness and an even stronger determination to keep such atrocities from happening again. It is my hope that 'Without Sanctuary' will inspire us, the living, and as yet unborn generations, to be more compassionate, loving, and caring. We must prevent anything like this from ever happening again."