Opinion: The real life, comic book hero that was John Lewis

We will be saying our final good-byes to John Lewis on Thursday. More than a few will reach for words suitable for carving into granite.

But there will be others who want to make sure that a congressman who was into duck face selfies and more than a little dancing isn’t neglected. And that we remember the young man who was sent into a spiral when he was kicked out of the movement he helped start – then saw his two heroes murdered.

And that we acknowledge, too, the Washington veteran who remade himself in the last decade of his life by embracing comic books and a new generation of protesters ready to hit the streets with the same complaints he had listed in that speech before tens of thousands in 1963 Washington.

The ceremony in the U.S. Capitol had just finished Monday when Andrew Aydin called back. He is an Atlanta native and a long-time Lewis staffer in D.C. Aydin also became John Lewis’s writing partner for the trilogy of graphic novels known by the collective name of “March.” He was 3 years old when Lewis was first elected to Congress.

“March” is why teenagers know that Lewis, as a child, preached to chickens outside an Alabama sharecropper’s shack. The series ended with the march to the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on a bloody Sunday – and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The story of John Lewis will continue posthumously in a two-book work called “Run.”

“I think we’re going to turn over the fully illustrated version in two or three weeks. The Congressman read everything,” Aydin said. That’s how he pronounced it – “Congressman” with a capital “C.”

The first volume will carry readers to September 1966, when Lewis was ousted by Stokely Carmichael from the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he had helped establish six years earlier.

The second volume will tackle the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the former a personal mentor and the latter a personal friend.

“March” ended on a high note. “Run” will document Lewis’ darker years in a noisy, violent wilderness. “People jump from ’65 — and they forget to tell you that he lost everything and built himself back up again. He lost Bobby, he lost Doctor King. He lost his organization,” Aydin said. “When he got kicked out of SNCC — he was living in a SNCC apartment. He had no home, nowhere to go.”

Then came that sniper’s bullet in Memphis. “People don’t realize the Congressman didn’t actually attend Doctor King’s service. He had a seat reserved for him, but he felt like that wasn’t where he belonged,” Aydin said. “And so, he walked up and down Auburn Avenue, and he listened to all the speeches over the loudspeakers. And he just walked around, totally lost.”

Two months later, Lewis was in a Los Angeles hotel room with the family of Bobby Kennedy, watching as the Democratic presidential candidate was gunned down.

The second volume will end with an inkling of Lewis’ future career in Congress. “John Lewis wrote a letter to Julian Bond in 1970 — it might have been 1969, telling Julian that he should run for the Fifth District seat,” Aydin said. “He laid out this whole plan about how the Fifth District should be the seat of Black political power in the South.”

Bond demurred. Instead, fellow civil rights veteran Andrew Young ran as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Fletcher Thompson in 1970. Young lost, but won in 1972 when Thompson gave up the seat to run for U.S. Senate. Young’s political career was launched.

“Book Two ends with the letter,” Aydin said. “I already wrote the last line of it — and the Congressman laughed at me. It ends with, ‘Julian decided not to run in 1972. But that’s another story.’”

To get the joke, you have to know that in 1986, Lewis won the Fifth District congressional seat by beating Bond in a bitter campaign that still reverberates today.

I had sought out Aydin to talk about what I saw as Lewis’ remarkably steady presence on both local and national stages. The loyal staffer and graphic novelist politely disagreed, pointing me to what Lewis considered another low-point in his life — the verbal beating he took for initially refusing to abandon Hillary Clinton for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential contest.

“That was a watershed moment again, because he was getting targeted by the Obama community, and they were coming after him,” Aydin said. Even though Lewis would eventually make the switch to Obama, he picked up two primary opponents that year. Lewis won easily with 69% of the vote, but was shaken nonetheless.

Republicans felt free to target him. “We’re not in the civil rights movement right now,” Herman Cain said. A GOP political consultant dismissed him as a “moral scold.”

The rebranding of John Lewis began in his 2012 campaign. Staffer Leslie Small pulled out an ever-present line in Lewis’ speeches and reduced it to a single phrase. The slogan “Good Trouble” was born. “We first used it on the 2012 campaign poster — the mug shot,” Aydin said.

Small, incidentally, is the husband of Nikema Williams, the state senator named to take Lewis’ place on the November ballot.

Then came the first volume of “March” in 2013. The series is the most widely taught graphic novel in American public schools, and addressed the “nine word” problem of teaching the history of the civil rights movement.

“Most students graduating from high school know only nine words about the civil rights movement — ‘Rosa Parks,’ ‘Martin Luther King,’ and ‘I have a dream,’” Aydin said.

For Lewis, the books reestablished a fading identity. When “March” appeared, election-year opponents disappeared. “Everybody knew who he was,” Aydin said. “He shifted the narrative from ‘What have you done for me lately,’ to ‘Oh, my gosh, how lucky are we to have a congressman who did all these amazing things.’”

A new generation was introduced to Lewis and his philosophy of protest. It helps explain why the congressman, in his last days, was so willing to be photographed on the new Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House. He felt he had played a hand in this latest uprising — in large part, through a series of comic books.

Not all heroes are at their best in granite or marble. “They want the image etched in stone. But the real John Lewis is the guy who is taking duck face selfies with Kelly Sue DeConnick at Dragon Con,” Aydin said.

He waited a beat, then explained to an old man that DeConnick was the creator of the newest, female iteration of “Captain Marvel.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis taking a duckface selfie with Kelly Sue DeConnick at Dragon Con.

Credit: Andrew Aydin

icon to expand image

Credit: Andrew Aydin