Editor’s Note: On this day where we celebrate the accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we here at BlackSci-Fi.com wanted to bring you an interview highlighting one particular aspect of the civil rights struggle in which Dr. King fought . In 2013 the graphic novel March was published by Top Shelf Comix, which was an illustrated memoir of Congressman John Lewis’ time spent within the Civil Rights movement. From the Top Shelf website: “March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.” The series was written by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, and now spans three graphic novels.
Check out our the first part in a three part interview via BlackSci-Fi.com correspondent Professor William H. Foster III who sat down with March co-author Andrew Aydin.
Bill Foster: First of all, without sounding like a kiss-up, I love March.
Andrew Aydin: Aw, thank you, man. Hopefully you’ll like this next one even more. This is a learning process as much as anything.
BF: I hear you talking and sometimes, because I’m working on a book now and it’s like the more I put in, the more I want to put in and you’ve got stop at some point.
AA: I mean, the thing about, with me, I mean, I wrote my graduate thesis on how a comic book was used to influence the earliest sit-in and I think for so long, um, you know, comic books have been maligned for reasons that were based on prejudice and misunderstanding and, you know, with March, we’re just starting to tap the potential for using the comic medium to reach young people in a profound way. I think, you know, the comic book hearings, if you really go back and read the transcripts from the 50s and you listen to the experts they brought in, you’ll find that, you know, um, the public perception of comics being corrupting were so wrong, but that, at the same time, they did establish kind of without a doubt really that, um, they could be influential.
AA: So, you know, I think we’re just starting to tap into that and you see in schools now, looking for ways to teach the civil rights movement and when you give them the opportunity to teach it with a graphic novel, over and over and over again I hear how surprised these teachers are with the voracity with which students attack the material and how much more meaningful it is to them. You know, I kind of have to laugh and shake my head a little bit because it’s like, yeah, that was the idea, you know.
BF: Well, they would, I remember distinctly being told when I was a kid that comic books would just rot my brain and never take me anywhere.
AA: I had a teacher like that who taught me English when I was in high school and she said, you know, that’s not real literature, that’s not a real book and I had the privilege then of going back to my high school and having that very same teacher have to teach my graphic novel.
BF: The irony just smacks you right in the face, doesn’t it?
AA: Yeah, it was quite delightful.
BF: I was reading March, and because I’m a child of the civil rights era, I’m over 60 years old, and I looked at some other graphic novels like Little Rock Nine, The Silence of our Friends and In a Class of Her Own about Ruby Bridges and without fail, they all used different approaches to tell to the story. I think yours is interesting if for no other reason that you guys chose black and white instead of color. Was that a hard decision to come to?
AA: That’s just Top Shelf’s MO. I mean, they publish almost exclusively in black and white which is, you know, a hallmark I think of indy comics. I think, to a certain extent nowadays, it’s going away because there’s such a more, there’s more a mainstream audience for this book. But, you know, I mean, Blankets was published in black and white, you know?
AA: But what’s interesting I think about March from an artistic perspective is that Nate (used the technique he hadn’t fully developed yet before March which was this gray wash which is essentially like a watercolor application that he puts on top of his ink.
BF: It’s very effective.
AA: Yeah, it adds a moodiness and, you know, it goes beyond simply casting shadows. It allows you to play with the page in a way that gives it greater depth.
BF: I’m just curious, when you were writing the story, did you get a chance to speak with any other of the participants who marched with the Congressman at that time?
AA: Oh yeah, quite a few actually. In fact, Jim Zwerg who is so influential in Nashville and elsewhere probably deserves a greater place in the history than he’s been given so far. I hope we do a small part in getting him there. He helped me with my graduate thesis and answered a number of questions. Yeah, he answered a number of questions that I had and then, you know, since, during the production and after the subsequent production, I’ve spoken to a number of others. I actually have a copy of March signed by Fred Gray.
BF: Oh, wow.
AA: He has a copy of ours and (inaudible) also is a big fan who was incredibly complimentary. And I had the opportunity to speak to (inaudible) one of the Greensboro Four, when he was (inaudible) about it. And, you know, they’ve all been incredibly supportive. I think they see the desperate need for reaching young people and they love the way that we’ve done it because, you know, it’s a different approach but you mentioned the other titles and they tend to tell a story about someone.
AA: It’s not the story of the movement from one of their perspectives and I think they’ll see it explored in greater depth with March Book Two. With young folks today, there is this frustration about, well what can I do and how can I participate, how can I make a difference. I’m 18, 19 years old. With this story being told from a first person perspective, it allows us to explore that question that young people are facing and show them that they can do quite a bit. In fact, they’re probably the only ones who can do something.
Political folks, in so many cases, are indebted to those that got them into office. We don’t have very many folks like John Lewis who can simply run on the fact that they do things. And especially with Citizens United and everything going on with campaign finance these days, more and more the politicians are one step away from NASCAR drivers where they might as well as sponsorship labels attached to their blazer. You know? I say this from the inside, it’s really, it’s really troublesome and, you know, the young people have the freedom to pursue change without worrying about pissing anybody off. In fact, you know, they can, they can piss off everybody. It doesn’t matter, you know? I talk a lot when I’m on the road and talking to kids about what I see like, the evil of student loan. I’ll give you an example of why I see student loans as being the primary threat to young activism.
BF: Go ahead.
AA: When John Lewis got married in 1968, their wedding announcement in the LA Times said, the first line was something like woman to wed unemployed political activist John Lewis.
BF: Oh, man
AA: So, this is three years after Selma, okay, and he had no job, he’d been a student who had debt from his college years and, remember, he’d gotten two degrees by that point. As a young man of 24, 25, he could only make about $10 a week. That was less than minimum wage, okay? And so the organizations back then are led by young people who want to continue their activism outside of college. They’ve gone through their education, now they’re ready to do something and instead we have to shove them into some sort of cookie cutter employment scenario rather than pursue their ideals. You know, it gums up the whole system and it’s why we’ve seen a decline in the activist class.
So, nowadays we can insist they load up with student loans or we can guarantee every young person who doesn’t work and qualifies, can go to a public university for free or for a very, very minimal amount as they’ve done in other countries. Countries where their economy is growing faster than ours. I mean, look at Germany, right? We could bring back that activist class. But at the end of the day, people who are ahead of their time face a real and true economic consequence. It takes time for people to catch up to their beliefs and their values and they may be looked upon as pioneers 50 years later, but at the time, just like John Lewis, they’re seen as radicals.
BF: Absolutely, absolutely. I was in visiting a fellow comic book historian in Sweden and he was telling me that secondary education was free and that just blew my mind.
AA: Right! Also, if you look at some of these Scandinavian countries and they have a higher quality of life. They have affordable, if not outright single payer healthcare and they have an amazing literacy rate, and they have higher number of people possessing these higher education degrees. You know, there’s all sorts of positive consequences and, you know, I can go into the whole school funding model. What it used to be is that the corporate tax is what was used in many states at the state level just to pay for education and, as we’ve cut corporate taxes, we’ve used lottery money and we’ve used student loans to supplement that. So, in a sense, the backs of the students are being used to subsidize corporations from what it used to be. And we’re paying the consequence of that as a society.
BF: I understand. Makes sense to me.
AA: I’m probably the only comic book writer you’re ever going to talk to who would go into that sort of depth, but, you know, I think a lot of these guys have similar concerns, you know, and just because, I’ve got a masters from Georgetown and I’ve been working in politics for over a decade now, lord help me. I’m just at a point where I believe that we use comics and graphic novels to educate young people of what the consequences of the society we’ve created are or what the consequences are for the society that we’ve created. That’s the vehicle that we can use to inspire them to force this change. And with all the activism going on around the recent events in Ferguson, looking at the police violence, I guess we need better education, we need better healthcare, we need all of these pieces and it’s coming to a head because now, all these other pieces have been denigrated to a certain extent. Now it’s just possible for you to kill people without recompense. You know? I mean, it’s insane and this is the battle this generation has inherited. I mean, I get so mad at the generation ahead of me because they did so little for this country. They sucked up all the resources, they sucked up all the money and they gave it away to corporations and the CEOs. I’m sorry. This isn’t about money.
BF: No, dude, dude, you and I are on the same page. You and I are talking about the same thing. As a college professor, I see it as my personal mission to re-engage my students with the past. I’m teaching an African American literature class this semester and I’m not so much frustrated as I’m surprised by how much they don’t know. But then also, like you said, I think I’m kind of encouraged that they want to know, some of them.
AA: Well, and I would go so far as to say that there has been a systematic and deliberate effort to take civil rights education and education of certain parts of our history out of the classroom, particularly non-violence, because it is so threatening to the status quo.
AA: And, you know, I look at this when I try and get March into schools. Now, sometimes you have teachers who are willing to do it themselves, but when you look at it, if you look at it from the state level perspective, the teachers are driving March into schools themselves because they see what it does to the students. So, when you have that sort of on the ground reaction, then they’re going to drive it but you don’t see the major foundations, these major corporations that supposedly sponsor all this progressive education. And so we’re trying to address this problem. The National Law Center put out a report saying that 47 states fail to adequately teach the Civil Rights Movement. Where is the corporation who’s willing to put up the money to put a copy of March in hands of every young person who goes to a public school in America?
BF: Oh, that’s an outrageous situation.
AA: It’s about preserving the status quo and keeping people uninformed.
BF: I have to agree.
Look out for parts 2 and 3 for our March interview with co-author Andrew Aydin to be released on 1-17 and 1-19.
Professor William H. Foster III is a long-time fan of both comic books and science fiction. He is the creator of a traveling educational exhibit on “The Changing Image of Blacks in Comics.” He has written two books on this topic: “Looking for a Face like Mine” (2005) and “Dreaming of a Face like Ours” (2010). To purchase copies go to www.Amazon.com. To find out more about his research please visit his website, www.Finallyinfullcolor.com.