CONGRESSMAN John Lewis recalls vividly how he first met Martin Luther King.
“Are you the boy from Troy?”
Lewis is re-creating that moment, those first words, during our conversation last year.
“Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?”
It was 1958, and Lewis wanted to attend college at Troy State, near his parents’ home, but as he says, “No black student was allowed.” He sought help, he says in his memoir, by writing to “the only person who I thought could understand what I was trying to do.” So he began his letter: “To Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ... ”
Young John Lewis exchanged letters with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, as well as Dr. King’s attorney, Fred Gray, who had also represented Rosa Parks. Weeks later, he was boarding a Montgomery-bound bus. Upon his arrival, the teenager entered a church, and Martin Luther King rose, extending a hand and a question:
“Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?...
“Who is this young man who wants to desegregate Troy State?”
That pivotal scene — and Lewis’s ultimate decision to head to Nashville instead — is evocatively recounted in the Georgia Democrat’s recently published graphic-novel memoir, “March: Book One” (Top Shelf), which recounts the “Boy from Troy’s” rise to nonviolent protester and civil-rights icon. Just five years after that meeting, Lewis would appear on the same bill and world stage as King, as the youngest speaker (age 23) at the March on Washington.
(To hear more about John Lewis’s story, and learn more about his graphic memoir, here’s my interview with him last August, upon the March’s 50th anniversary.)
Several years prior to meeting King that first time, John Lewis read a comic book that would change his life — helping to put him on a path of nonviolent protest that included scores of arrests. (Lewis’s most recent arrest of activism was last summer, when he was taken to jail in Washington as he and others protested on behalf of immigration rights.)
As a teen, Lewis read the “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a brightly tinted comic, published by the Fellowship for Reconciliation, that spotlighted the nonviolent protests not only of King, but also of Rosa Parks and Gandhi.
A half-century later, a young Egyptian woman, Dalia Ziada, would read that same influential comic book and help publish thousands of copies translated into Arabic — some of which would find their way to Tahrir Square during protests in 2011.
Today, an Arabic-translated issue of that comic hangs in the Hill office of John Lewis.
(To read more about Ziada, an activist and nonviolent protestor, and Lewis’s long connection to that comic, you can read my piece here.)
Elsewhere today, Google is celebrating Martin Luther King Day with a home-page Doodle that features the doves of peace and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.
To read more about Google’s earlier MLK “Dream” Doodle, and about the leader's legacy, you can check out this Comic Riffs piece. And to see a collection of cartoons that pay tribute to Dr. King, you can click here.
Martin Luther King Day is marked by a wide range of commemorations — from prayers to parades, concerts to services.
And today, The Washington Post looks at the costs of being a catalyst for change. As this paper’s editorial board writes:
“The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was seen by some as a radical and a troublemaker. The truth is that he had considerable faith in America. He believed that when people saw the unfairness of the caste system that had grown up in their country — in a nation founded on the principles of equality before the law, the opportunity to advance in life according to one’s merits, the right to choose the people who govern us — they would understand how truly un-American it was and it would all come to an end, and much of it has.”
As a living catalyst, John Lewis helped King usher in that change, and today, at 73, continues to fight on the lines where social unfairness still lingers and persists.