“I truly believe when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something. You have to say something.” Rep. John Lewis discusses his comic book series March in this special edition of A Word on Words, taped in 2016 with LaTonya Turner in Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room.
LaTonya Turner: Why did you write these books and take the approach to reach youth readers? What was the goal?
John Lewis: When I was growing up in Alabama, I saw the signs that said white waiting, colored waiting, white men, colored men, white women, colored women. I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, why. They said, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
But when I came to Nashville to study as a college student in 1957, 17 years old, I heard about a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, that told the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. That book inspired me. It sold for 10 cents. 16 pages, hundreds of college students in Nashville and all across the South started reading the book. And that book became our guide during the sit-ins, during the freedom rides. And one of my staff people came to me one day and said, “Congressman, listen.” When president Barack Obama was first elected, he heard me telling the stories and I mentioned a comic book. He said, “You should write a comic book.” I said, “Oh, maybe.” He kept saying, “You should write a comic book and tell the story of the movement, the story of your life.” And I finally said, “Yes, if you would do it with me.”
It took us five years to write March, Book One. So, we did book two, and we ended with book three. And students and young people all across America are reading these three books. It’s the story of my life, the story of my involvement in American civil rights movement.
LaTonya Turner: So, your interest in doing this preceded the current political engagement environment around the Black Lives Matter movement? Is there relevance or a comment you’d like to make about how these books might relate to those young protesters now and their approach?
John Lewis: These books would say, this is the way we did it. We studied, we prepared ourselves. We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “We’re going to go and sit in. Or we going to go in the freedom ride. Or we going to March from Selma to Montgomery.” We studied the way of peace, the way of love. We studied the philosophy and a discipline of nonviolence.
So, if we were beaten, if we were arrested, in jail, we were ready. We never became bitter or hostile. We never had hate for anyone. Dr. King told us that hate is too heavy a burden to bear. He told us to love. So, if when we were arrested, in jail, we accepted it. If we were beaten, and left bloody and unconscious on the freedom ride, on the march from Selma to Montgomery, we didn’t give up. We kept working, kept planning for a new day.
And the signs that I saw when I was growing up in Alabama coming to attend school in Nashville, they’re gone. They will not return. The only places our children and their children will see the signs today will be in a book, in a museum, on a video. Our country is a better country. We’re not quite there yet, but we will get there.
LaTonya Turner: What do you think about what has happened since the last presidential election with those protest efforts and the election itself? You will certainly be in the middle of the political activity as we move forward.
John Lewis: There have been forces in recent weeks and months in America trying to take us back to another period, but we’re determined. They’re young people determined. They’re Black, they’re White, they’re Latino, they’re Asian-American, they’re Native American. They’re saying we’ve come too far. We’re not going back. We’re going forward, and we’re going to create one America. We’ll respect the dignity and worth of every human being.
LaTonya Turner: How does that make you feel seeing this mobilization that’s happening now?
John Lewis: Well, I’m gratified. I am very pleased to see all of the young people standing up, speaking up, marching, making some noise, getting in the way, getting in trouble, what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. I truly believe when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something. You have to say something.
LaTonya Turner: Okay, and there have been incidents of violence, but for the most part they’ve been peaceful. Do you feel that they are continuing to use the blueprint that you and your colleagues used during the civil rights movement, or have they taken it to a different, better place?
John Lewis: I think the great majority of the people today that are protesting are following a blueprint. Following our way of doing things. Dr. King used to say from time to time, there’s not anything more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people. And when you see people marching all across America saying, “We’ve got to do what is right. We got to go in a different direction.” It happened to educate, sensitize, and move people to come together as one.
LaTonya Turner: You’re holding the most recent book, which two days ago you were recognized again for this work. What is it like to be recognized in that way with so many awards and accolades for this?
John Lewis: Well, to receive a national book award was unreal. Unbelievable. When I was growing up outside of Troy, and we would visit the library trying to get library cards, we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. So, I never went back there until July 5th, 1998. By this time, I was in the Congress, for the signing of my first book, Walking with the Wind. Hundreds of Whites and African American citizens showed up, and they gave me a library card.
And I remember attending a segregated school. I had a wonderful teacher who said to me, “Read my child, read.” And I tried to read everything. I love books, I love the libraries, and now to receive this honor, it’s just unreal.
LaTonya Turner: I want to switch to the Black press reconstruction that we talked about. What is your understanding about the significance of the Black press in the 50 years after the Civil War?
John Lewis: The Black press played a major role. If it hadn’t been for the Black press, the progress of Black people in America would have been like a bird without wings. And the Black press are still playing a role today. You have these journals, these papers that tell us where we are, and where we must go to redeem the soul of America. In so many ways, it was the most significant way to reach the Black community.
LaTonya Turner: Do you think that it was a way for Black people to connect in ways that were meaningful and positive? Because even then, I think the mainstream media of that era did not dignify African-Americans even after slavery.
John Lewis: It was the most significant and most meaningful way for people to communicate with each other, to know what was going on. Whether it was the North Star or some other publication, it meant so much. It put us all on the same wavelength. People learned to read, they learned to write, and it helped move us much farther ahead. And I think the Black press are still playing a major role today.
LaTonya Turner: When we want to know what is going on in our neighborhoods, in our community, on a national level, we can look to the Black media, the Black press.
What’s next for you, Mr. Lewis?
John Lewis: I will continue to serve in the Congress, maybe for a few more years, but whatever I find myself, I will continue to be active. Spend a lot of time with young people, with children telling the story of the movement. Trying to inspire another generation of young people to stand up, to speak up, and to speak out. All young people, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re black, they’re White, Latino, Asian American, Native American, they can do it. They can lead. They can get in the way.
LaTonya Turner: Did you think we might see another time in this country where you would feel that that was so needed as the in the 60s?
John Lewis: I think today with what is going on in a national level in American politics, it is needed now more than ever before. All of our people, all of our children, especially the young, need to understand where we’re going and where we must go.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Walking With The Wind, John Lewis
Across That Bridge, John Lewis
Run, John Lewis
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
A Word on Words with John Seigenthaler
Host John Seigenthaler interviews John Lewis in this vintage episode from our archives.