Schoolchildren get their copies of “March” signed by graphic-novel memoirist Rep. John Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin, left. (photo by Frances Stead Sellers)

 

BEFORE HE even spoke, there came the standing ovation.

Several hundred enthusiastic people signed up to hear civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), with his co-author, staffer Andrew Aydin, speak about the first two installments in their acclaimed graphic-novel trilogy, “March,” on Thursday night at the University of the District of Columbia auditorium.

During the civil-rights movement, Lewis led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was badly beaten 50 years ago on Bloody Sunday, when he helped lead a group of marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in a bid for voting rights.

The images of that past are graphic — as fittingly reflected in Nate Powell’s “March” artwork — but in person, Lewis’s stories on this night were restrained, like the philosophy of nonviolence he continues to espouse.

“Over the past 50, 60 years, we have witnessed a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas,” said Lewis, son of a sharecropper, who grew up in rural Alabama “picking cotton, pulling corn, gathering peanuts” — and hiding under the porch to read his treasured books.

“If it hadn’t been for the Voting Rights Act … ,” said Lewis, “we wouldn’t be where we are today, and there probably wouldn’t be a Barack Obama in the White House.”

Their goal now, said Aydin, is to pass the message on to younger voters, to inspire a new generation.

And among the audience on a school night was a smattering of children –brought along by their parents to learn how a movement of nonviolence secured fundamental rights.

They not only got to hear about history. In Lewis’s presence, amid his words, they also got to listen to living history.