More than 50 years ago, a young John Lewis stood in the crossroads of a divided America. Today, he stands as the incumbent U.S. Representative for Georgia’s fifth congressional district, making an appearance at the recent Miami Book Fair to promote his latest graphic novel, “March: Book Two.”
The latest installment in Congressman Lewis’s harrowing “March” trilogy continues where a young Lewis left off — in the midst a turbulent social climate fueled by covert institutional prejudice and overt racial violence alike. As part of the “Big Six,” a renowned coalition of civil rights activists, Lewis, along with hundreds of thousands of protestors, embraces a predominantly pacifistic strategy to combatting bigotry, staging Freedom Rides and Sit-Ins across the nation, some of which ended in bloodshed.
The March series seeks to touch upon every facet of the human condition through stark illustrations rather than mere written accounts of the civil rights movement, capturing each protestor’s crucial look of adamancy and fear in contrast with the glaring hate on the faces of racists and Klansmen who stood in favor with the archaic notion of “separate, but equal.”
At his event which was part of Miami Dade College’s annual Book Fair, John Lewis spoke extensively about the necessity for nonviolence in the face of adversity.
“I got into what I like to call necessary trouble,” he said. He further recounted how he had been arrested more than 40 times throughout his career as an activist, with his most recent arrest taking place only two years ago when he protested with a number of other congressmen on Capitol Hill to encourage comprehensive immigration reform.
“In my eyes, there’s no such thing as an illegal human being. I’d like to think that the ‘March’ series will inspire another generation and teach young people and people who aren’t so young to stand up, speak out, and get into necessary trouble to help change our country and make our world a little bit better.”
Congressman Lewis’s personal experience in “March” chronicles the painfully slow process of getting the federal government to side with the activists of the civil rights movement, while also elucidating some of his shining moments as a leader, signaling his eventual success as a congressman several years later. Having learned from some of the most influential civil rights figures including Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Lewis distanced himself from the controversial Black Power movement that had been occurring at the time and marched forward with the Freedom Riders at the risk of being brutalized by segregationists in the South.
In one instance, on May 3, 1961, as John Lewis recalls, he and a group of fellow marchers were savagely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina.
“We were left lying in a pool of blood,” the congressman said. “Many decades later, in February 2009, one of the men who beat us came to me and started crying, asking for forgiveness. I accepted his apology and he hugged me, I hugged him, and we each started crying together. That is the power of the way of peace.”
Although the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a significant decade for the minorities of America, “March” serves as a living testament and reminder that economic and social disparity between races, religions, and ethnicities is still omnipresent in what many would falsely label as a post-racial America.
Even at his old age, John Lewis, among other elderly activists and protestors, is still taking to streets and Capitol Hill to defend the downtrodden and advocate love and equality. At a younger age, John Lewis participated in the historic Selma to Montgomery march. Today, in the contemporary era of heightened racial tensions in light of a fresh new wave of nationwide protests, the march continues onward and will carry on until John Lewis’s vision becomes a reality, when the “burden of race,” as he put it, is ultimately obliterated.