This is a guest post by Monica Valentine, Program Specialist in the Library’s Young Readers Center, and Megan White, Visitor Services Specialist in the Library’s Visitor Engagement Office.
Today marks the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. The legacy and memory of U.S. Representative John Robert Lewis, who passed away last month, is sure to loom large over any commemoration of this event. Lewis, at 23, was the youngest keynote speaker at the march, where he addressed a group of more than 200,000. The event has come to symbolize the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In December of 2015, 60 years since the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin spoke to a group of DC area 7th graders at the Young Readers Center about his life as chronicled in their award winning graphic novel series March. With a humble and gentle spirit, Lewis shared some of what he learned and experienced over his remarkable journey. He traced his life from raising chickens on his father’s farm to the unfairness of the Jim Crow Laws in the south to his decision to “get in the way” and get in what he described as “good trouble” to change those laws. Attributing the arrest of Rosa Parks as the spark for his actions, Lewis described meeting Parks at 17 and later meeting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King who introduced him to “the way of peace, the way of non-violence,” which shaped his life. He went on to become the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, which was one of the groups that organized the March on Washington. He urged the students “to continue to read, never give up, never become bitter, never hate, hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Lewis also shared an intimate moment from his 33 years of service in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Georgia’s 5th district. He described a visit from a man who had beaten him and his white seatmate on a bus as they returned from the freedom rides in the 1960s. At this time, in his seventies and accompanied by his son in Lewis’s congressional office, the man apologized and asked Lewis, “Will you forgive me?” Tears and an embrace followed. Lewis told the students that this moment was made possible by “the power of peace, the way of love, and the way of non-violence.” He went on to share, “when people tell me nothing has changed I feel like saying, come and walk in my shoes. I’ll show you a change.”
Lewis and Aydin’s March is not the first graphic novel about the Civil Rights Movement. It joins a tradition of comics going at least as far back as 1957 when “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story” was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This 16 page story wasn’t popular in comic book circles, but it was read widely in civil rights groups, churches, and schools. It even inspired activists as far away from Montgomery as Latin America, South Africa, and Vietnam.
In the spirit of John Lewis’s “good trouble,” for this year’s anniversary of the March on Washington, consider talking with your children or students about times when a peaceful approach solved a problem or resolved a disagreement and create a comic strip to recount the story. You can also watch Lewis discuss March at the 2014 National Book Festival, March II in a talk at the Young Readers Center, and March III at the 2016 National Book Festival, or hear more accounts of the march in oral histories from the Civil Rights History Project.