RUN by Representative John Lewis tells the untold story of the civil rights movement
The remarkable life story of Representative John Lewis and his role in the civil rights movement continues in Run: Book 1, the sequel to the late Congressman’s award-winning graphic novel trilogy March. Run: Book 1 picks up where the previous volume left off, detailing what happened after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It chronicles the continued struggles of Lewis and other civil rights activists to overthrow segregationist policies and record voters while facing the war in Vietnam and infighting among allies. Sometimes heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, Course is a strikingly relevant work of art that shines a light on elements of the civil rights movement that do not receive much attention and shows how the struggle continues even to this day.
Lewis, who died in 2020, was a Democratic congressman from Georgia who served 17 terms in the United States House of Representatives. Prior to that, he was a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Marches from Selma to Montgomery in favor of the suffrage of African Americans. He was arrested 40 times in the 1960s while participating in demonstrations and non-violent protests. Even decades after starting his congressional career, he continued to participate in protests. While in the House of Representatives he was arrested twice for protesting apartheid, twice for protesting the genocide in Darfur and once while demonstrating for immigration reform .
Co-written by Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell, March was first released between 2013 and 2016 by Top Shelf Productions. Run: Book 1 brings together the same creative team and adds artist L. Fury. It is published by Abrams ComicArts. After Lewis and Aydin complete the script for Course, they worked closely with the artist, and the majority of the book’s pages were completed and reviewed by the time Lewis died.
The March Trilogy Continues a Proud Comic Book Legacy
One of the reasons Lewis chose the graphic novel format to tell his story is that he himself was heavily inspired by a 1957 comic book about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Titled Martin Luther King and the History of Montgomery, the book was gifted to Lewis at the age of 17 and demonstrated the power of non-violence in the civil rights movement. Aydin was Lewis’s digital director and political advisor who encouraged Lewis to write his story in comic book form, and then co-scripted it with him.
In the context of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, March chronicles Lewis’s life from his youth in Alabama to his work in the civil rights movement. The first book describes Lewis’s first encounters with racism, his early days in the civil rights movement, his first encounter with King, and his first arrest during a sit-in at a lunch counter in Nashville. The second book focuses on his time with the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s until the Birmingham Church bombing in 1963. The third book details Lewis’s time as SNCC chairman, the marches in Selma, including the “Bloody Sunday” assault on marchers by deputies from the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. It ends with the adoption of the law on voting rights.
The three volumes of March have received wide critical acclaim. Between them, the books have won numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Eisner Awards, and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. They were New York Times bestsellers and have been taught in schools and colleges since their publication.
First you walk, then you run
While the passage of the Voting Rights Act was a major achievement worth celebrating, it is not the end of the story. The civil rights movement had won a victory, but as Course shows, there was still a lot of work to do. The book begins on August 8, 1965, just two days after the Voting Rights Act was signed, with Lewis and a group of African Americans arrested for attempting to pray at an all-white church in Americus, Georgia. Throughout the book, several scenes could just as easily take place in 2021 as they did in 1965. The beating of an unarmed black man by police in Watts, Calif. Triggers days of uprisings and riots. . Blacks lined up to register to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama, amid intimidation from white supremacists. Peaceful demonstrators are attacked by armed police. A young black man is shot and killed by a white gas station attendant, who is then acquitted by an all-white jury.
As the fight for civil rights and equality rages on, a different kind of fight takes place behind the scenes. More and more activists of the movement are being enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, leading to divisions between the SNCC and other civil rights groups over how they should vehemently oppose war and conscription. There is also disagreement over whether civil rights protesters should continue to follow a strict path of non-violence, as Lewis and King advocate, or whether they should embrace more militant and separatist philosophies as a result. of the violence they face.
This divergence leads Lewis to be excluded from the SNCC presidency in favor of Stokely Carmichael, who has become a major figure in the Black Power movement. Readers see how the phrase “Black Power” became popular and it is impossible not to see similarities between this phrase and “Black Lives Matter”. In both cases, opponents denounced the slogans as “harmful” and “racist”, diminishing their actual messages in favor of the anger aroused by their wording. This is just one example among many that underscores the relevance of Course in 2021.
A brilliant and moving work
The history taught in most American schools tends to portray the civil rights movement as a unified movement working towards a common goal. But Run reveals a more nuanced take on the period that doesn’t get as much attention. Civil rights activists are divided repeatedly throughout history, at odds over messages and philosophies. As the country grips the horrors of war, racism and riots, Lewis manages to make these monumental moments in history both awe-inspiring and personal. Readers feel his frustration as the movement faces setbacks and challenges. The weight of the dilemmas Lewis faces is very palpable as he struggles to reconcile his non-violent beliefs with growing anger in the civil rights movement. But there is also a sense of hope, because even if he loses his post as president of the SNCC in favor of Carmichael, he does not give up the fight and moves forward into the future.
Fury and Powell’s stunning black and white illustrations go perfectly with Lewis and Aydin’s lyrics. Every scene, from small personal moments to great historical demonstrations, is depicted in stunning detail with close attention to everything from clothes, hairstyles, clothing and landscapes. But even beyond capturing the visual representation of the time, they are able to convey the emotions of the time and put the reader in the shoes of the people who were there. Every face in every crowd is unique and expressive, leaving the reader to feel the anger, pain, hope, frustration, fear, and joy of the times.
There’s a point in Run where SNCC is handing out comics to the public to inform them of the upcoming election and what’s on the ballot. “Anyone can read comics,” writes Lewis. Even then, Lewis and the SNCC understood the power comics can have, how they can transport readers to another time and place. Run: Book One is able to bring the story of John Lewis and the civil rights movement to life in a way that other memoirs or history books cannot. Much like Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, this is a comic book worth sharing and one that has the potential to inspire a new generation of people to keep running towards a bright future.
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