SAN DIEGO – Rep. John Lewis not only dressed as a revolutionary leader during his second appearance at Comic-Con International, he behaved like one — seizing the opportunity to shape young minds by taking the future firmly in his hands.
The Georgia Democrat returned to the pop culture smorgasbord on July 11 to promote the second installment of his illustrated biography, “March.” Lewis co-wrote the ongoing series of graphic novels, which chronicle the life-threatening situations he often found himself in throughout the civil rights era, with right-hand man Andrew Aydin.
The duo has been working for several years now with artist Nate Powell on a trilogy of books detailing Lewis’ ongoing crusade to vanquish inequality, an arduous journey that’s routinely visited pain and suffering upon the 15-term lawmaker’s person but has never succeeded in crushing his spirit.
If anything, it’s made him stronger.
John Lewis Leads Procession at Comic-Con
Lewis told the several hundred people who’d gathered to hear him speak — a diverse lot including snowy haired retirees, aging punk rockers and wide-eyed youngsters — how Elwin Wilson, one of the assailants who in 1961 left the fabled Freedom Rider bloodied and battered on the floor of a bus station in Rock Hill, S.C., showed up decades later on Capitol Hill in a desperate attempt to make things right.
“He said, ‘Mr. Lewis I’m one of the members of the [Ku Klux] Klan who beat you, and beat your seatmate. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?’ And I said, ‘I accept your apology, I forgive you,’” Lewis said, adding that the perfect strangers openly wept together and wound up embracing before the 2009 reconciliation was over. Wilson died in 2013.
John Lewis Sets Up at Comic-Con Booth
But this was meant to be an uplifting visit, not a somber occasion.
Lewis set the tone early, arriving at the San Diego Convention Center in an outfit mimicking what his younger self wore decades ago to make history by putting one foot in front of the other across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Aydin alerted audience members that they all shared a certain quality with Martin Luther King Jr.: respect for illustrated works. While researching Lewis’s story, Aydin said he’d uncovered a cache of correspondence proving MLK had weighed in on, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a seminal title from the 1950s.
“As I was poring through ‘March’ … this idea of Dr. King in 1957 sitting at a table reading a comic book script gave a me a deep sense of comfort. We were not alone,” he said.
John Lewis Recalls Story of Klan Member Asking for Forgiveness
That sense of solidarity, though, is routinely tested by what Aydin and Powell have dubbed “the nine-word problem.”
“Kids graduate from college or high school and they know nine words about the civil rights movement. They know Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and ‘I have a dream.’ And that’s how the South was desegregated. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” Aydin counseled. “There was sacrifice by a number of individuals who were willing to risk everything, many of whom had to give their lives for the reality that we are now watching slip away. “
Attendees, many of whom felt compelled to preserve every syllable spoken by any means necessary (including video cameras, digital SLRs, smartphones and tablets), seemed to relish the opportunity to commune with a living legend.
“Well, I’m not a teacher …” the solon ventured at one point. “Yes, you are!” an enthusiastic supporter blurted out, setting off a wave of cheers and applause that rippled across the conference room.
When one young man asked the speakers about the social issues of the day, the trio momentarily parted company, each championing different causes — Lewis argued for bolstering voting rights (“Make it easier and simpler for everybody to register to vote,” he advised.) and overhauling immigration laws (“There’s no such thing as an illegal human being. We all come from some other place.”); Aydin reiterated comments he’d made earlier about eliminating student debt, while Powell took a stand against unlawful incarceration — meant to improve our collective experience.
“Speak up. Speak out. And let’s bring about a nonviolent revolution in America again,” Lewis challenged everyone in the crowd.
He then put that rallying cry into action by leading the dozens of children and scores of adults who’d just heard him speak on a mini-march through the sprawling entertainment complex.
The winding parade route ended at the Top Shelf Productions booth.
At that point Lewis et al., slipped into position for two hours of facetime with the general public.
Supporters of all ages poured forth for the chance to shake the man’s hand, share recollections of days gone by or just glance at a real, live hero.
“Keep the fire alive,” a gray-haired gent, still cradling his autographed book, urged the venerable pol.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you’ve done,” a schoolteacher with several students in tow espoused.
His story is so richly layered, it’s even proved irresistible to folks inhabiting other parts of the ideological spectrum.
“I may completely disagree with the man politically, but it’s an important part of history, so you have to be here,” Carl Hossli, who also caught Lewis’ Comic-Con debut in 2013, told CQ Roll Call about the importance of supporting open and engaging politicians.
The history buff considers Lewis to be part of a dying breed. And he’s none too happy about those who have assumed positions of power in the interim.
“He has a very quiet, genteel Southern charm. You know that if you were to argue with him politically, it would be done … probably over some sweet tea,” Hossli posited. “You might argue for hours, but at the end of the day, there’d be no rancor, no animosity.
“That level of civility seems to be missing today. Everyone screams at the top of their lungs. And if you don’t agree with them, you should have your head cut off and put on a pike at the front gate,” Hossli said of the current political climate. “I blame Newt Gingrich for that one,” he added.
Hyper-partisanship aside, Lewis remains hopeful his message is resonating with well-meaning individuals.
He hailed South Carolina flagpole-climber Bree Newsome for brilliantly demonstrating the enduring power of civil disobedience.
“It was an act of non-violence in the best tradition. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something about it,” he said of an act that theoretically helped speed along the very public demise of the Confederate battle flag in the Palmetto State.
But the war is far from over.
Lewis and Aydin are actively fleshing out the third and final chapter of the series. Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros told CQ Roll Call he’d love to have “March: Book Three” ready for release next fall, floating plans to get the book out just ahead of the 2016 elections.
Staros left the door open to working with the congressman on other projects once this debut effort fully runs its course.
“We’ve kicked some ideas around,” Staros said.
Until then, Comic-Con fans will simply have to remain patient.
Unless, of course, some other public figure elects to join the party.
“You think Ted Cruz is going to bring his comic book next time?” one attendee quipped, chuckling to himself at the mere thought of seeing the Texas Republican roaming the convention floor.