Framing the fight for the next generation 

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. John Lewis, right, talks about his graphic novels that cover the civil-rights movement with Ava Lamb. The books, “March: Book One” and “March: Book Two,” help relate the struggles, tragedies and triumphs Lewis and others experienced in the 1960s. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • U.S. Rep. John Lewis, right, talks about his graphic novels that cover the civil-rights movement with Ava Lamb. The books, “March: Book One” and “March: Book Two,” help relate the struggles, tragedies and triumphs Lewis and others experienced in the 1960s.
The 1-California bus wheezed up Sacramento Street and my 11-year-old daughter, Ava, sat beside me looking out the scratched window.

Atop Nob Hill, in the Fairmont Hotel, I had an interview with a U.S. congressman. I’d dragged Ava along for the novelty, but also because this particular lawmaker — John Lewis, U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987 — has a story to tell.

And his story, depicted in a series of graphic novels, is aimed squarely at Ava and her peers.

As a young man, Lewis had played a central part in many of the seminal anti-segregation fights in the South during the high tide of the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s.

Lewis had a front-row seat — one that was often dangerous and at times bloody — to everything from lunch counter sit-ins and fire-bombed buses filled with freedom-riding, to the march on Washington, D.C., and the one in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

In the two graphic novels about his life, “March,” personal details of the struggle to end Jim Crow laws are given a face and a name — Lewis’ own. The second book in the series has been newly published and Lewis was in San Francisco recently to promote the project, seeking to pass on his story to the next generation. I thought Ava would be the perfect companion to such an interview.

As our Muni bus made its final push up the hill and Ava made herself presentable, I was reminded of the question she asked me when I told her about coming along with me to this interview:

“Who is John Lewis?” she had asked.

My parents, all good liberal baby boomers who came of age during the civil-rights movement’s heyday, know of John Lewis and were perhaps a bit jealous of Ava when they heard our plans.

Like most schoolchildren, Ava knows who Martin Luther King Jr. is, and vaguely that his life was dedicated to fighting for civil rights and ending segregation. But she only knows the name John Lewis because a department store in England, where she lives most of the year, is so named.

The story of other civil-rights activists like Lewis, people at the center of much of the storm, is less well-known, at least to the average middle school student, including Ava.

So, as a kind of primer, I told her that Lewis had known and worked with King, the man who, as she put it, made the “I have a dream” speech.

I left out that Lewis had helped lead one of the civil-rights movement’s most influential student activist groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, or that he has been dramatized in the film “Selma,” among other details. Instead, I brought her to the interview — where she had her own questions — and gave her the graphic novels to read so she could make up her own mind.

  • Courtesy Top Shelf Productions
  • Courtesy Top Shelf Productions
On a plush couch inside the Fairmont, Ava positioned herself between Lewis and his co-author, Andrew Aydin, as a photographer snapped away and I readied my questions.

Before I could start asking Lewis about the book, Ava started with a question of her own: She asked him why he had such an interest in chickens, as she had read in the graphic novels.

On his family’s farm in Alabama, Lewis wrote that he not only took care of the chickens as a chore, but he preached to them too. He’d taken such a liking to the chickens that he protested when his family needed them for food.

“I engaged in nonviolent protest. I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t speak to anyone,” he said, holding Ava’s gaze as she sat beside him.

His preaching and protests on the farm came years before his days as a student activist.

But, as Lewis tells it in person and in his book, he had the kernels of a nonviolent activist inside of him well before anyone taught him the meaning of those words.

But he wouldn’t learn the nuts and bolts of organizing against segregation with nonviolent civil disobedience until he left his family’s sharecropper farm for Nashville, Tenn.

There he had teachers. He also read a comic book.

While attending seminary in Nashville, Lewis was drawn to a group of activists through a Baptist church he attended. That is where he learned the philosophy of nonviolence and found his calling. In a series of workshops in 1958-59, Lewis was taught about Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for Indian independence Lewis had met King in his late teens, but he was truly baptized into the movement in Tennessee.

The graduate student who taught the workshops was a member of the Fellowship for Reconciliation, or F.O.R., and used a comic book published by the group about Gandhi, King and others as a training aid.

The book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” taught about passive, nonviolent resistance as a tool to dismantle segregation.

When he was 17, Lewis was asked if he wanted to be a part of pushing to desegregate an Alabama state college, was already open to such messages, but the comic book’s impact was beyond what he expected.

“The comic book ... had a tremendous impact on me,” Lewis said as Ava looked on, his graphic novel in hand. “That book changed me and set me on a path.”

That path took him from student sit-ins and marches on Washington in the early ’60s to working for the federal government the 1970s registering voters in the south, and, for the past three decades, as a congressman from Georgia working to pass laws.

Now, decades later, Lewis hopes that his story, told in another graphic novel, will have a similar impact.

“He had a lot of faith to do what he did and a lot of courage,” Ava told me a few days later as we talked about our meeting with Lewis. “It kinda makes me think that you can do anything you want, if you try.”

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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