Graphic history

By Bill Castanier

‘One Book, One Community’ chooses graphic novel memoir of civil rights activist for 2014

Thirteen-term Georgia congressman John Lewis is the last living member of the core group of speakers who addressed the historic March on Washington in 1963. He also led marches and sit-ins that would result in severe beatings for him and his followers at the hands of the police. Lewis recently added comic book author to that resume. This week, his graphic novel memoir, “March: Book One,” was officially announced by the City of East Lansing and Michigan State University as the 2014 One Book, One Community book.

The program, in its 12th year, encourages the city-university community to read the same book and come together to discuss it in different settings. The book is also assigned reading for all incoming MSU freshmen. As part of the book’s selection, Lewis, 74, will address the incoming MSU freshman on the morning of Aug. 25 at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. That evening, he will address the community at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center.

Through the program, an impressive lineup of authors has come to East Lansing, including National Book Award winners James McBride and Katherine Boo. This is the first time a graphic novel format was chosen. Ginny Hass, MSU director of community relations who sits on the One Book, One Community committee, said “March” is the “perfect choice for the program,” because it will be tied in with MSU’s Project 60/50, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision.

Why a graphic memoir to tell his story? Lewis, who has already published a highly acclaimed memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” said he believes the medium will help his message reach young people. “We need to reach the next generation who are in college, high school, middle school and grade school with the message of peace, love and nonviolence,” he said in a phone conversation from his Washington office. Lewis said he is optimistic that this next generation will carry on the dream that was laid out so eloquently more than a half century ago.

“I see young people today anxious to be engaged,” Lewis said. “The book is the means to do that.”

“March: Book One” is the first installment of a three-volume set planned by Lewis and his co-author/congressional aide Andrew Aydin. The first volume covers Lewis’ early life and ends with the tumultuous but successful Nashville sit-down strike that integrated the city’s lunch counters.

Aydin, 30, said he clearly remembers the day in 2008 that Lewis stepped up to defend him to his fellow office mates when Aydin told them he was going to a comic book convention. Lewis quieted the laughs of his staff by telling them about the 1950s comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” that influenced him and other leaders of the civil rights movement. Afterward, Aydin had the idea to turn Lewis’ story into a graphic novel. He said he would periodically bug Lewis about writing it, but it took a little convincing. And like everything Lewis has done in his lifetime, Aydin said once Lewis agreed, he began the project with “unbending spirit.”

“I had to keep up with him every day,” Aydin said. “He became the greatest mentor I ever have had. Lewis’ nonviolence approach was an unbelievable weapon hidden in plain sight.”

With the addition of illustrator Nate Powell (who came to East Lansing last month for the MSU Comics Forum), the graphic memoir took on a powerful life. Aydin said the medium allows use of a variety of literary styles, including foreshadowing and creating dramatic tension. “Book One” follows the first 24 years of Lewis’ life, opening and closing with scenes depicting two momentous phone calls he received.

The graphic novel’s selection is part of a larger program to initiate a community conversation on racial equality. On Sept. 15, One Book, One Community welcomes Michele Norris as part of the MSU Lecture Series at the Wharton Center. Norris is the first African American National Public Radio host and author of “Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir,” which examines modern race relations. Also set to appear this fall (time and location to be announced) is Ryan Coogler, writer/director of the film “Fruitvale Station,” the true story of a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Bay Area Public Transportation police in San Francisco.

For Lewis, the journey back in time to the era of civil rights demonstrations and marches was often painful for him; more than 40 activists died in their fight, and their memory is never far from Lewis.

“For the first time (recently) — I’d never been able to do it — I visited the home of (slain civil rights activist) Medgar Evers and I broke down and cried,” Lewis said. “There are many who believe that the issue of race is gone, but the scars of racism are still there. You can see it and you can feel it.”