John Lewis wanted to leave a civil rights ‘road map’ for generations to come

Michael Cavna

THE WASHINGTON POST – Representative John Lewis was so determined to finish his final memoir as the pandemic began that he devised a safety system. Andrew Aydin, his co-author and neighbour on Capitol Hill, would deliver their latest working pages to the civil rights icon’s home, hiding them behind planters on the front stoop. The Georgia congressman was 80 and receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, so absolute social distancing was essential.

The hidden handoffs early last year brought Lewis joy in his final months. He died of cancer last summer, but not before telling his last impassioned story.

The creative result, Run: Book One, which will be released tomorrow, chronicles Lewis’ journey shortly after his pivotal Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama – and immediately after the triumphant signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that concluded Lewis’s previous graphic-novel project: his best-selling March trilogy. The illustrated sequel spotlights how Black activists evolved into political leaders against the national backdrop of racist violence, voter suppression and the Vietnam War – dramatic scenes and themes that feel timelessly relevant.

“He was very hopeful that leaving his legacy in a graphic novel would give a road map not just to this generation, but to generations to come,” Aydin said by phone from North Carolina.

Lewis liked to recount how as a teenager, it was a comic book – 1957’s widely distributed Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story – that drew him into the movement of nonviolent protest: within six years, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. The book’s brightly tinted comic panels, featuring such figures as King and Rosa Parks, had the power to “make it plain” and “make it real”, Lewis would say – especially appealing to a young person who couldn’t get a library card in his Alabama town because of the colour of his skin.

Lewis and Aydin began publishing the graphic-novel epic March eight years ago, working with artist Nate Powell. The series received widespread critical acclaim, including the first National Book Award for a comic book, and became a must-have in schools. Lewis led a kids’ procession at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2015, donning the same type of trench coat and backpack he had worn 50 years earlier while leading 600 protesters across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. March was eventually displayed at the same library where he’d been denied a card more than a half-century before. Lewis knew how to dramatise conflicts vividly, whether on the page or the national stage.

Powell, who rendered 2016′s Book Three cover, returned to draw the opening sequence of its new sequel: a protest scene that serves as a direct narrative bridge from March.

Run begins in Americus, Georgia, in the summer of 1965, as Lewis is leading about a dozen local activists.

Soon they are arrested and taken to jail. “The ink was barely dry on the Voting Rights Act, but already forces were gathering to fight back using our own tactics, and America’s cities were ready to explode,” Lewis and Aydin wrote beneath images of far-right hate.

Speaking by phone from Indiana, Powell described the new book’s themes. “We’re not talking about victories,” he said. “We’re not talking about a war being won. We’re talking about the everyday anonymous work of protest.”

Because Powell was committed to other book projects when the work on Run began in 2016, the team turned to Texas-based illustrator L Fury to create most of the art. It was her first graphic novel, as well as her first work of nonfiction. And to nail the audition, she needed to convince Lewis that she could draw him as a young man.