On Sunday at 2:30PM, a full-to-capacity room in Hyatt Hanover F was honored by the presence of Congressman John Lewis, as he joined Andrew Aydin, the co-author of March: Book One and March: Book Two, graphic novels depicting the events leading up to the march on Selma during the civil rights movement. While book one focused on the events leading up to Lewis’ beginnings in the movement, book two picks up as the freedom rides began, carrying through to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Book three, still very much in progress, will pick up where this story left off, and continue through to the march on Selma. These stories are drawn in part from historical documents, but mostly from Lewis’ own memory, which Aydin says is sharp as a tack.
Lewis spoke eloquently about his experiences with the freedom rides, touching on many a serious topic, but also bringing a ripple of laughter from the audience as he recalled how the night before the ride, they had all gone out to dinner, and it was his first experience with Chinese food. Quickly, he reminded us it was a serious incident as he recalled someone telling them to “eat well,” as it might be their last [meal].
Bringing many in the audience to tears, Lewis also recounted the first night of the ride, May 4, 1961, traveling from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. He and his seat-mate, a white man, were beaten and left on the street. In February 2009, an elderly man, with his grown son, came to Lewis’ office, and told Lewis that he had been one of the Klansmen who had beaten Lewis and his seat-mate that night. He asked forgiveness, which Lewis gave, demonstrating that his commitment to non-violent change was still firmly in place.
Aydin also spoke about others involved in the movement that he had made a point to pay tribute to, for instance, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was appointed a deputy in the March on Washington movement; Rustin was not made leader of the movement because, in addition to being black, he was gay (and outed by Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor). As Aydin pointed out, we’ve been working toward equality on intersectional levels because of people like Rustin, and though many of us have never heard of him, he changed the early days of the movement.
The speech Lewis gave at the March on Washington was revised a bit from the one he wanted to give, because of the ideas that members of the church wanted to convey. However, the original draft of this speech is included in March: Book Two, yet another way that Aydin and Lewis worked together to preserve the history of the civil rights movement for those who don’t know anything more about it than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream.
Much of the rest of the panel was Lewis recounting stories discussed in the book, sharing details about the events he went through in such detail that if you closed your eyes, you could see them happening. He brought his story back to life, sharing it yet again, and giving due to others where they deserved it. It was clear listening to Lewis speak just how deeply the entire civil rights movement affected him, and how much he’s clung to those memories to make sure they stay alive. History forgotten is history to be repeated, and Aydin’s work with Lewis has ensured that we won’t forget the 1960s and the events that shaped so much of the America we live in now. We have a long way to go to correct many of the past mistakes, and current ones, but the greatest hope we have is, as we hand things like March to our children, that it shapes their worldview and makes social citizens out of them, so generations to come don’t allow time to slip back on us again.