In 1956, when John Lewis was a boy of 16 in Troy, Alabama, he went downtown with his brothers and sisters and cousins to the Pike County Public Library to get library cards. When they got there, the librarian told them that the library was for whites only, not for “coloreds.” He never returned to that library until July 5, 1998, when he went to sign his new book Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. He was warmly welcomed by an audience both black and white, and the library staff belatedly presented him with a library card.
That was only one of many stories US Congressman John Lewis (D–Ga.) told a packed room of librarians during his Auditorium Speaker Series speech on Saturday afternoon. His deep, sonorous voice scarcely needed a microphone as he recounted his early years in the Civil Rights Movement—as one of the original Freedom Riders in 1960, as the last remaining speaker from the historic March on Washington in 1963, and as one of 600 marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday in 1965 when he was beaten severely by state troopers.
Now Lewis has written a graphic novel about his experiences, with the help of his technology policy aide Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. Called March, it is both an autobiography and a tribute to a generation of young people who were so moved by injustice that they had to “speak up and speak out, fight the good fight as one people, one family, all living in the same American house.”
Book One of March will be published August 13 by Top Shelf Productions and will be followed by two sequels to complete the trilogy.
Lewis noted that shortly after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from imposing qualifications or prerequisites on American citizens before they could vote. He said that at the time, some jurisdictions made African Americans count the bubbles on a bar of soap or estimate the number of jelly beans in a jar.
After the session, an audience member asked him how he felt about the fact that four days earlier the Supreme Court had ruled one section of the act unconstitutional. Lewis answered, “I feel somewhat sorry for them. These guys never stood in line to take a literacy test. They have never been beaten and jailed. I tried to say to them, ‘Come walk in my shoes.’”
Lewis pointed out that one reason why Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 was because of the Voting Rights Act. “There is much fear out there in the land that we are losing control,” he said. “There are calls to ‘Take our country back.’ But back where? I want to go forward.”
Lewis hopes his book will remind Americans to “be hopeful, be optimistic that we can make something happen.” When he was in school, teachers told him to keep out of the way. “But for 53 years I have been getting in the way,” he said. “It is a nonviolent revolution of values and ideas, a way of peace and nonviolence.”