BURLINGTON — On Monday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and his staffer Andrew Aydin presented the first in a trio of graphic novels inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and his 16-page comic book, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
“Book One: March” called members of the Vermont community to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, where the duo stressed the urgency of action, and the need for younger generations to take up the civil rights mantle the way a young Lewis did in a second-hand, $5 suit.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Attorney General TJ Donovan and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., were among those in attendance for the standing-room-only event. The event was a partnership between the Flynn, Vermont Reads and the Vermont Humanities Council.
The projector screen lit up with classic pen-and-ink comic book illustrations and Lewis’ voice boomed over the speakers as he narrated the story in which a young “Bob” was forced to sneak off to school when his parents wanted to keep him home to continue farm work with his siblings.
It was a story of toil and struggle, in an era where people came together to be present, be constant, and remain until their abusers were forced to accept their presence and change.
It was the story of the civil rights movement, and Lewis’ hand in the fight.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke of his love for comic books, praising the Vermont Reads program before praising his “brother” Lewis’ strength of character, force of will, and wisdom.
“He is a moral force in Congress equaled by no other,” Leahy said. “He’s been a champion for everybody. … He’s a hero for our time.”
Lewis told the story of 110 acres of land sold to his father for $300, and how he was raised on a farm in Alabama. He was a curious child, always inquiring as to why there were different signs for white people and black people, but his mother would always silence him, and tell him to stay out of the way.
“My mother would say ‘Boy, that’s the way it is,’” Lewis said, before addressing the audience and calling them to task. “You’ve a moral obligation to assess something … to speak up, and to speak out.”
Lewis recalled how he had been kicked out of the local library when he was a child, but the actions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King inspired he and others to sit in, bearing the bitter, hateful actions of others who opposed him. He said people poured hot coffee and water down the backs of the protesters and cigarettes were put out in their hands.
But they did not retaliate, Lewis said, and they did not turn bitter, they did not turn violent or angry. They, instead, turned to one another.
One day, 600 parishioners left the church and were confronted on the bridge Selma by Alabama state troopers, who assaulted them with tear gas, bull whips and night sticks, one of which gave Lewis a concussion and sent him to the hospital.
The next day, King came to Lewis’ bedside, and promised him an army of religious leaders who would march with them, several of whom were subsequently beaten so badly by members of the Ku Klux Klan one succumbed to his injuries in the hospital in Birmingham, Lewis said.
When President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act and quoted King in saying “we will overcome,” Lewis said he turned to see tears on King’s face.
“Come and walk in my shoes, I will show you change,” Lewis said to the tearful crowd Monday. “We are not going back. We are going forward to create one America, one people.”
Lewis said he has been arrested five times while in Congress, in addition to four before that time.
“When you see something that’s not right and not fair, adjust,” Lewis said. “(We must) steady a philosophy of nonviolence.”
Aydin spoke about his upbringing, and how his father was a Turkish-Muslim immigrant who was arrested for his immigration status when he was in utero. Aydin was raised in a single-parent household gardening the library in exchange for new books.
“Reading was my escape,” Aydin said.
His first comic book was an X-Men edition bought for him at a Piggly Wiggly. He dove headfirst into the world of comic books and illustration.
“Here were people making a living, simply with the power of their ideas,” Aydin said. “It shaped my youth.”
Aydin described his experience of going to college and getting his first job for the lieutenant governor of Connecticut, before moving south to be closer to his mom, to be the one who answered the mail for Lewis, his childhood senator and hero.
“I didn’t realize what a sacred thing it was to answer John Lewis’ mail,” Aydin said of his job writing thank you notes to the senator’s many commenters.
Lewis then invited Aydin to be his press secretary. In many ways, Aydin said, Lewis reminded him of aspects of his first hero: his mother.
Lewis inspired Aydin with his stories of the young people who spearheaded the civil rights movement, and introduced him to the comic book Martin Luther King wrote and sold for 10 cents to inspire peaceful disobedience and civil rights to a population.
Why not write a comic book again, the comic book-loving Aydin suggested, to reach the young people of the country?
“No member of Congress had ever written a comic book before,” said Aydin. “This had never been attempted.”
They started it in 2008, and ended completed it in 2013.
“We would work at nights, and on weekends,” Aydin said. “It took us three years to actually make it.”
Together, they created a comic book that served to inspire social change and education, and collectively called the audience to take a stance on everything from student loan debt to the separation of families at the Mexican border, urging families not to lose hope.
Lewis said he was inspired by Martin Luther’s book when it was published and found his deepest hope for the future in the power of its youngest voices.
He was so inspired that he chose to become one of the “Big Six” leaders who coordinated efforts in the 1963 March on Washington, and was one of the many Freedom Riders in a demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has been re-elected 14 times.
Every year, Lewis said he makes a trip back to Alabama, to trace the route from Selma to Montgomery, where he marched for human rights of people of color, starting a revolution that continues to burn today.
“I ask all of you: Join us (in our fight), and march,” Aydin said to his standing ovation.
“You have to make a little noise. You have to get in the way,” Lewis said. “And get in good trouble. Necessary trouble.”