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Congressman John Lewis Discusses the Power of Comics to Change the World

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In 1956, a comic book changed John Lewis's life. It was a ten cent, 14-page floppy that told the story of Martin Luther King's march on Montgomery. 

"The Martin Luther King story inspired me," explains the congressman, telling a story he's no doubt recounted countless times over the past few years. "It told me what happened and how it happened in Montgomery, the involvement of Rosa Parks and hundreds of people. This little book, 14 pages, sold for ten cents and became the blueprint for me and hundreds of thousands of other people across the American South."

For Lewis and a generation of civil rights freedom fighters, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was more than just a comic book. It was a blueprint for change through non-violent protest.

"It taught us to accept non-violence, not just as a tactic, but as a way of life," Lewis adds. "We started sitting in at lunch counters all across the south, and as a student in Nashville, I was part of the sit-in movement. We would sit at the lunch counter and someone would spit on us or put out a lit cigarette in our hair. They would pull us off the stools, beat us and later on we would be arrested and taken to jail. The first time I got arrested, I was 20. I felt free and I felt liberated and I've not looked back since."

The comic's straightforward storytelling had an impact that's stayed with the Congressman to this day, and when aide Andrew Aydin brought up the subject at the end of a 2006 campaign, Lewis was happy to explain the impact the book had on his life's trajectory.

"I was serving as the Congressman's press secretary," explains Aydin. "It was around the end of the campaign and we were discussing what we were going to do afterwards. Some people were going to go the beach, some people were going to go see there parents, I was going to go to a comic convention. Everybody laughed except John Lewis. He said, 'don't laugh. There was a comic book during the movement. It was incredibly powerful.' "

When Aydin suggested that Lewis tell his story in comics form, Lewis agreed, but only if Aydin helped him write it. The duo enlisted the help of Swallow Me Whole cartoonist Nate Powell and the first March book was born.

Like the Martin Luther King comic from a half century prior, the March series has taken on a life beyond its comics form. "We thought this book would serve as a guide, as a roadmap, as a source of inspiration for people to have the courage to get out there and push and pull and be very bold," says Lewis. "To have the capacity to so 'no' when it's time to say 'no' or say 'yes' when it's time to say 'yes.' "

"What we had in mind is coming true," he adds. "There are students and groups in different parts of the country that are mobilizing and organizing. Church groups are taking up these books. When people see and read what happened during the freedom ride in book two, they're going to understand. If these plain everyday people can do something like this, I can do something, too. "

And while we've come a long way since those segregated days of the mid-50s, events of the past year have brought into sharp relief for the nation that we still have a ways to go. But Lewis is as confident as ever that we'll get there...eventually...

"Each generation must continue to educate and lead," he says. "I'm convinced that as a nation, as a people, we'll get there. We'll create the beloved community. A community, a nation where no one will be left behind. Because the struggle is not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or a few years. It's the struggle of a life. The struggle of many lifetimes."

Stay tuned to T-Lounge all week long for more from Comic-Con 2015.

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