Before Congressman John Lewis spoke to a packed Flynn Center theater in Burlington Monday night, the audience went back in time to 1955.
“In the fall I started riding the bus to school, which should’ve been fun, but it was just another sad reminder of how different our lives were than from those of white children. The county didn’t bother paving roads in colored communities unless it was necessary for white traffic to pass through.”
Jazz scholar Reuben Jackson narrated “March: Book One” reminding the audience of the civil rights era, seen through the eyes of a young Rep. John Lewis.
Lewis was visiting Burlington with his co-author of the comics, Andrew Aydin, to explain how they wrote the graphic novel and how the stories relate to our current political time, in association with the Vermont Humanities Vermont Reads program, which chose Lewis’ book, “March: Book One” for this year’s program.
Lewis, a civil rights icon, spoke about his experiences growing up in segregated, rural Alabama. He said he remembered asking his parents why black people were separated from whites. That curiosity guided him to the activism of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The words of Dr. King and the actions of Rosa Parks inspired me to find a way to get in the way,” Lewis said. “A way to get in trouble, which I call good trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
Many of the experiences he spoke about are covered in the comic book trilogy, a project he took on, he said, because Aydin convinced him it could allow young people to learn about the civil rights movement in an accessible, exciting way. As Aydin would later recount, the “March” books aimed to garner the influence a comic book published in 1957 had on young activists. It was called “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” and told the story of King, Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the importance of non-violent protest.
“That little book inspired a generation of young people to study the way of peace, the way of love,” Lewis said. “To study the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.”
And while Lewis’ comics had ambitious goals, they didn’t immediately attract praise. Aydin, who is also a staffer for Lewis, said he remembered being laughed at by policymakers for pursuing the book. He said many others rolled their eyes at the idea whenever he brought it up. But he wanted to reinvigorate the way the civil rights era is taught.
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The “March” trilogy is a popular series in schools and has won numerous awards.
When the first comic launched, Aydin said he got a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who read an advanced copy and then handed it off to his 9-year-old son. Afterward, he said his son began marching around the house in a suit, demanding equality and justice for all.
“Imagine if we could install a social consciousness in every 9-year-old in America,” Aydin said. “That’s what ‘March’ is about.”
Lewis and Aydin took questions from the audience. One 10-year-old asked that if racism hadn’t been challenged in the 1960s, if Lewis and Aydin thought that she would be alive today?
“There are few people willing to be the unmoved mover,” Aydin said. “There is the possibility that she wouldn’t. … What we can take from her question is that we can’t let her be right in the future. We have to be that unmoved mover for the power of justice.”
Lewis didn’t spend much time discussing national politics, or his contentions with President Donald Trump.
He was asked by an audience member, “What is the Edmund Pettus bridge of this time?” referring to the infamous bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis and others were beaten when marching for voting rights in 1965.
“When you look at the White House today,” Lewis said, “it is the bridge.”
Correction: Andrew Aydin’s surname has been corrected.