Civil rights legend John Lewis urges nonviolent protest
Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, a prominent civil rights leader, recounted his firsthand experience in the civil rights movement to a packed crowd Monday night at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium.
Lewis was accompanied by Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin, illustrator and co-author respectively of the National Book Award-winning graphic novel “MARCH,” which they published in 2013.
Lewis is considered one of the “big six” leaders of the civil rights movement, a group including people such as Martin Luther King Jr. During the civil rights movement, Lewis was arrested over 40 times, had his skull cracked while marching in Selma, Ala., and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis said in today’s political climate, the lessons he learned and preached during the civil rights movement are relevant in light of recent news that Richard Spencer will not be banned from speaking at the University.
“In a public space, people have the right to speak,” Lewis said. “I would advise the students and the University community, whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion. Sometimes when you have hate groups, silence is best.”
The ideas of peace and nonviolence were instilled in Lewis by Martin Luther King Jr., who he considered a mentor. Though he was beaten and unwelcome in many scenarios, Lewis reiterated learning and speaking out against injustice is necessary.
“I was inspired to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said.
These principles of peace were also the driving motivation for writing the comic book “MARCH.” The book was the brainchild of Andrew Aydin, who now serves as Lewis’s digital director and policy adviser. Inspired the Montgomery Story, a comic book edited by and based on Martin Luther King Jr., Aydin decided Lewis deserved a book of his own. Though Aydin’s idea was a tough sell on the Hill and to publishers, he said the narrative they told is necessary.
“We weren’t just making these comic books to tell John Lewis’s story, we were making them because we believed there needed to be a new nonviolent revolution in this country,” Aydin said.
These comic books were also made with the hope that education of the civil rights movement could be strengthened. All three speakers agreed the civil rights movement isn’t taught enough at all levels of schooling. Most students, they said, carry on the “nine-word problem,” or knowing only buzzwords “Rosa Parks,” “Martin Luther King” and “I have a dream” in the context of the era.
All three speakers agreed the civil rights that required bloodshed to obtain are often taken for granted. They hoped a graphic novel would provide the intimacy needed to appreciate the movement.
Powell said in education, many important narratives aren’t included in discourse, especially the messier inconvenient truths of the era that most people don’t want to confront.
“(Education) is about seeing actual equality as being in everyone’s interest, and that shouldn’t be a controversial statement.”
Aydin said he grew out his beard in an attempt to sensitize people to his Muslim roots. He hoped that in giving people a visual, they would understand more quickly –– he applied that same idea to the comic. Aydin knew that to revitalize a social movement for a new generation in a new world, he would need to use a largely unprecedented platform. He said that giving a complex story continuity with illustrations would keep the civil rights movement story from seeming like an unreality.
"If we're going to teach you the fundamental lessons of the civil rights movement, we have to do it in your language.”
When speaking of “your language,” Aydin was speaking in part about social media, which he said should be able to unify activists in unprecedented ways. Regarding the civil rights movement, now decades old, he said translating the story in a modern way should help inspire organization and unite young activists with Lewis.
“What would MLK tweet?” he asked. “What would Gandhi post? You have the capacity to organize on a scale the world has never seen before.”
The graphic novels are being used widely in schools and inspired Heidi Morse, University lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, to attend the event.
“I’m teaching a course for DAAS, the Art of Protest, and I asked my students to consider attending because John Lewis’s life story and involvement has been important for our course as well as a minicourse I’m teaching.”
For Art & Design freshman Leila Mullison, Lewis’s rhetoric held importance outside the classroom and pertains more to campus climate.
“I know there have been a lot of events happening around campus and around the country where there’s issues of violence and there’s issues of discrimination. Especially with Richard Spencer coming to speak at the University, I think it’s really important to get knowledge from someone who has lived through things like that and who has lived through peaceful protests and who has expertise in the situation,” Mullison said.
LSA junior Nick Eidsmoe agreed with Mullison and said Lewis’s status as a civil rights legend should help direct young activists.
“John Lewis is such a positive figure, and I’m glad he said you can ignore the other side while still respecting their rights and being nice to them,” Eidsmoe said.
But even with racial issues prominent on campus, Lewis said, activists shouldn’t become jaded or hateful. Even after experiencing violence on multiple occurrences, when asked if he feels any differently toward white people, Lewis said he carries no hatred.
“I don’t have any hate. I don't hate anyone or dislike anyone because of what I went through.”
In addition to maintaining a peaceful outlook in regard to activism, Powell said a sense of urgency needs to be instilled in young voters.
“This is not a drill and it never was.”