As a young boy growing up on a farm in Alabama, John Lewis would often preach to the chickens after they had settled in for the night. He was heartbroken when they died or were eaten, and at times the yard was littered with crosses and tiny chicken graves.
Mr. Lewis’s parents were sharecroppers who worked hard for what they had. Their advice for their children was to follow the rules and stay out of trouble. But for Mr. Lewis, who would become a central leader in the Civil Rights Movement and be arrested many times for civil disobedience, following the rules was not going to achieve the just society he envisioned.
After seeing the northern states for the first time in 1951, during a summer with his aunt and uncle in Buffalo, N.Y., he began seriously questioning the quality of life that many around him took for granted. In college, he loved studying religion and philosophy, but felt the need to do more.
Scenes from Mr. Lewis’s early life, young adulthood, and entry into the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s,make up March: Book One, the first in a graphic novel trilogy that traces the Georgia congressman’s life through 1968. Mr. Lewis will sign copies of the book at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m.
He is the last remaining speaker from the March on Washington, where more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in 1963 to demand an end to racism, and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech. Since 1986 Mr. Lewis has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district.
To create the new novel, he partnered with Andrew Aydin, a member of his staff in Washington, and with the award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powers. The novel was published last year, 50 years after the March on Washington.
“The three of us have lived and grown up in the heart of the deep South,” Mr. Lewis said. “Andrew and Nate, they understand what happened and how it happened. It’s been a cooperative effort and so far works so well.”
The project began in 2008, when Mr. Aydin attended Comic Con, an international comic book convention. He took some teasing from the campaign volunteers, but Mr. Lewis came to his defense. He pointed out that a 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 had inspired people around the world affected by racism and oppression.
“The book was sold for 10 cents, it was 14 pages, and I said there is nothing wrong with going to a comic book conference,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Aydin later suggested that the congressman write a comic book of his own, about his experience as a civil rights leader. “He kept saying, ‘You should really write it.’” Mr. Lewis said. “And I finally said, ‘Let’s do it, and you can do it with me.’ And that’s how the idea started.”
March: Book One was released last January and quickly became a bestseller. Some colleges and universities, including Michigan State University and Georgia State University, have added it to their required reading lists for freshmen. Book two will be released next January.
Although it’s not a widely told story, Martha’s Vineyard played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, mainly as a refuge where people from different backgrounds could gather and share ideas.
Mr. Lewis has visited the Island several times since the late 1960s. “I knew there were some very outstanding and committed individuals that live there or visit there, especially during the summer — African American as well as white,” he said. “People would come there to reflect, to discuss and to debate some of the great issues relating to race.”
In 1963, Islanders working with the Medical Community for Civil Rights, based in New York city, arranged a week-long vacation for six of the young freedom fighters in the South. The arrangement was also worked out with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which Mr. Lewis chaired from 1963 to 1966, and which helped coordinate the March on Washington and other actions around the country. At a benefit party in Oak Bluffs, the students spoke about their experiences. Dr. King himself visited the Island in 1962. A letter in the Gazette following Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech draws attention to his visit: “It is true that his vacation here a year or so ago was by way of complete rest and retreat, but his presence did not go unnoticed.”
In 2004, some of the nation’s top economists, lawyers and scholars gathered to discuss the continuing legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 established that segregated schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. (Mr. Lewis’s father in law, the psychologist Kenneth Claw, was involved in the case and owned a house on the Vineyard.)
Carrying forward the Island’s tradition of civil rights dialogue, Mr. Lewis will host a public conversation on August 12 with the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another early civil rights leader and one of Dr. King’s closest aides. The conversation will take place at Union Chapel on August 12 at 6 p.m.
Mr. Vivian, along with Mr. Lewis, and fellow activist Diane Nash, helped to organize the first sit-ins in Nashville in the 1950s. In 1960 they led 4,000 marchers to Nashville’s City Hall, where Mayor Ben West publicly conceded that racial discrimination was immoral. Mr. Vivian also helped to organize a voter registration drive in Selma, Ala., that created the momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His advocacy work has continued in recent years with his support of those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
President Obama awarded Mr. Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in 2014.
In 1998, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the March on Washington, Mr. Lewis and President Bill Clinton delivered speeches to a full crowd at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Lewis signed copies of his first book, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, at the Bickerton and Ripley Bookstore in Edgartown.
“I’ve been back a few times, but this is my first time coming back in the past few years,” he said.
The conversation on Tuesday will be moderated by Linda Earley Chastang, a seasonal Oak Bluffs resident, who was Mr. Lewis’s chief of staff for 10 years.
Cong. John Lewis will sign copies of March: Book One at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Sunday, August 10, from 3 to 5 p.m. Mr. Lewis will join the Rev. C.T. Vivian for a public conversation at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Tuesday, August 12, at 6 p.m.