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Miami Book Fair International 2013: Congressman John Lewis, Comic Book Hero

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March: Book One isn't just a graphic novel. It's an autobiography, a coming-of-age story, and a call to action all rolled up into one. The book's co-author, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, uses the graphic novel to reflect on how his childhood experiences set him on the path of non-violence and civil activism.

The graphic novel will be one of the books highlighted at this year's Miami Book Fair International. As great as learning about Lewis' life through sequential art is, it certainly doesn't compare to hearing about Lewis' life from the congressman himself.

Believe it or not, Lewis' focus on equality stemmed from an unlikely source--raising chickens.

"Growing up there on the farm as a young child with six brothers and three sisters [and a] wonderful mother and father, I fell in love with the responsibilities I had to take care of on the farm. One that I loved more than anything was raising the chickens," he said. "The chickens taught me patience. They taught me hard work and they taught me not to give up--to be hopeful, to be optimistic."

His chickens also served as practice for his later battles with injustice. "I think my first nonviolent protest was protesting my parents when they wanted to exchange a chicken for [goods from] the 'rolling store' man, the man that came by on an old...pickup truck and sell goods," he said. "Sometimes my parents didn't have enough money...to buy certain produce, so they would exchange a chicken...when they would kill a chicken for dinner, I wouldn't speak to them...because these were chickens I'd raised. I didn't raise a chicken for them to have a chicken for a meal. I wanted to keep the chickens...These chickens became an extension of the family."

Similar to how hundreds have gathered to hear Lewis speak about equality, Lewis' chickens would act as his congregation, listening to a young Lewis preach from the Bible.

"With my brothers and sisters and cousins...we'd gather all the chickens together in the chicken yard...and they [would] make up the audience, the congregation, and I would start speaking and preaching," he said. "When I look back on it, some of the chickens would shake their heads, bow their heads, and I tell young people today [that] these chickens never quite said 'Amen,' but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. And some of those chickens were more productive, too. At least they produced the eggs."

Growing up on a farm in Pike County, Alabama, Lewis saw his fair share of the ugliness festering in the South, a place that was then still trying to hold onto an antiquated way of life. "Growing up, I saw segregation, I saw racial discrimination, and I didn't like it...[M]y mother and father and my grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts--they worked so hard in the field. At the end of the year, they would go deeper and deeper in debt, and they didn't have much to show for it. I would ask them, 'Why do you keep doing this?' and my mother would say, 'This is the only thing we know how to do,'" he said. "We would visit the little town of Troy and visit Montgomery and Tuskeegee...I would see those signs that said 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women,' and I would say, 'Why?' And they would say, 'That's how it is. Don't get into any trouble.'

"I heard Rosa Parks when I was about 15 years old in the 10th grade. I heard Martin Luther King in the same year, 1955. The actions of Rosa Parks and the action and leadership of Martin Luther King inspired me to find a way to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and that's exactly what I did."

Something else also inspired Lewis to join the movement--a comic book. It was Lewis' love for this particular comic book that led to the creation of March.

"[In 2008,] a staffer of mine, who is the co-author of the book with me, Andrew Aydin...he told some of the staffers that he was going to go to Comic Con. And they started making fun of him...I said, 'You shouldn't make fun of him. You shouldn't laugh,'" he said. "There was another comic book...called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, and I read that in 1957 or '58, and other students read it, and we were deeply inspired to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. We started the sit-ins. [Aydin] was so grateful that I had said to the other guy 'Don't make fun of him,' and the role that the comic book had played, that he talked to me a day or so later and said, 'Congressman, you should write a comic book.' I said, 'No,' and he wouldn't give up and came back again and again. Finally, I said, 'Yes, if you do it with me.' And that was the beginning of March. That was more than five years ago."

March:Book One touches on the struggles Lewis faced in his work to achieve civil rights. Strangely enough, some of the struggles came from the Old Guard of Black America itself. Several black leaders were for civil rights, but for many young activists, some leaders were asking for a slower march to equality than they had patience for.

"Well, I became convinced by what I heard on the radio and what I was reading in newspapers and magazines, that I had to do something, and I had to just get out there and find a way to get in what I call 'good trouble,' necessary trouble," he said. "I was influenced by the actions of Dr. King and Rosa Parks...I became very committed to the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, to the way of peace, the way of love. Somehow, someway, I felt that was anchored. I knew of what I wanted to do and the route that I needed to take. I just wanted to put an end to discrimination, to segregation."

Lewis' hope for March: Book One is that readers, particularly children, become inspired to become a soldier for justice when a situation calls for action. "It is my hope that young people are reading this book and be inspired to take action when they see that something's not right, not fair, not just and stand up, speak out and be bold and not afraid," he said. "When they see someone put down because of their race, color, nationality, or because of their gender, then they have a moral obligation to find a way or make a way to get in the way."

Reading March: Book One can be viewed as a gateway to joining the ongoing civil rights struggle. Lewis believes that those who are inspired to raise social awareness should always act as a student of past civil rights successes. "I would only suggest to young people to study. Study the lessons of March. Study the civil rights movement. Watch the videos [like] Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, and become committed to the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence," he said. "Follow the teachings of Ghandi, the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Be loving, be kind, and never hate and never give up or give in, and don't become bitter or hostile, but keep the faith."

Lewis' sees his own faith in change justified in changes big and small, as exemplified by two very different experiences at a library in Troy, Alabama.

"In 1956, I was 16 years old, and my brothers and sisters and cousins [and I] went down to the public library in [Troy], trying to get library cards, trying to check out some books. We were told by the librarian that the library was not for coloreds, but for whites only. I never went back to that building until July 5, 1998 for a book signing of my first book, Walking with the Wind. Hundreds of black and white citizens came...[A]t the end of the program, they gave me a library card."

Lewis, along with co-authors Aydin and New York Times best-selling comic book creator Nate Powell, will speak about Lewis' life and March: Book One during an author talk at the Miami Book Fair International. The author talk will take place Friday, Nov. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Chapman Conference Center (300 NE 2ND Ave., Miami, Bldg. 3, 2nd Floor). Tickets cost $15. Visit miamibookfair.com.

March: Book Two can be expected on bookstore shelves between July and August of next year. March: Book Three will be out in 2015. Visit topshelfcomix.com.

--Monique Jones

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