The next chapter of John Lewis’s legacy

Run, the follow-up to the award-winning March trilogy, continues the comic-book memoir of the late congressman. Here, coauthor Andrew Aydin discusses why the graphic novels are so important and timely.

John Lewis Andrew Aydin Run
A spread from Run—tap to view larger

Courtesy of Abrams Books

Back in 2013, the debut of a memoir in comic-book form by civil rights figure and longtime Atlanta congressman John Lewis seemed an unlikely format for a legendary activist with gravitas to spare. But Lewis’s March trilogy—co-authored with aide Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell—proved to be a juggernaut, landing on bestseller lists, securing a place on high-school and college curricula, and ultimately earning a National Book Award.

The March trilogy chronicles Lewis’s early life and involvement in the civil rights movement, ending with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Lewis had planned to continue the work, and before the congressman’s death in July 2020, he and Aydin had drafted the script for the Run series. The first volume of Run, published in August by Abrams ComicArts, covers the tumultuous events of 1965-1966, including schisms between established civil rights leaders and Black Power activists, the history-making election of Julian Bond to the Georgia Legislature. Just in March, the book does not shy away from unvarnished accounts of history. It opens with a fearsome scene of Klan intimidation and closes with Lewis’s departure from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Today, with political storms swirling around both the issues of expanding voter access and teaching the country’s racist history, Run feels more timely than ever. “The fight that’s happening today is a direct continuation of the fight that began on August 7, 1965, immediately after the signing of the Voting Rights Act,” Aydin said.

The spread above, which depicts protests that followed efforts to block Bond from taking his seat in the Georgia General Assembly, echoes current efforts to undermine elections. “These are the same factions, the same groups of people,” Aydin said. “They may have switched parties. They may wear different ties. But they’re essentially the same group of people.”

Aydin spoke about the new book via video call, seated in front of a bookshelf lined with editions of March and history books used for researching the series. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Lewis Andrew Aydin Run
John Lewis realized that, to change laws, he needed to run for office—which inspired the title for this series.

Courtesy of Abrams Books

You must have very mixed emotions with the book coming out now. The last time we spoke was shortly after Congressman Lewis died. What has it been like for you and the rest of the team putting this new book out?
Since March: Book Three came out [in August 2016], it has been a period of tremendous loss in my life. I lost my mother, my grandmother, and then the congressman. I even lost my dog, Delilah, in February. So in some ways, I’m hopeful that finishing this book, putting it out into the world, marks the end of that period.

It’s so hard to see it be successful and not be able to share that with the congressman. We had so much fun making these books, talking about them, going to [San Diego] Comic Con and Dragon Con, being out there engaging with people. I keep fighting the impulse every time we get a new review, I want to call him and say, “Congressman, I’ve got some good news for you.” I keep waiting for him to call me and ask, “Do you have any good news?” Because in those dark times in Congress over the past few years, there was a sense that this is where he got his joy from. It was a sustainer to be able to keep up this work.

But at the same time, in true John Lewis fashion, the book couldn’t be more relevant and more needed than in this moment.

That leads what my next question: Are you expecting pushback with the release of the new book now that there is a national effort by some politicians to squash teaching about systemic racism?
I know there has been pushback against March’s adoption in classrooms. I got protested in Chicago for going to speak to students there, along with [The Underground Railroad author] Colson Whitehead. [But] if I’m being totally honest, I think part of the reason they’ve focused on, for example, the 1619 Project instead of March is because they’re afraid of it. They know March is too powerful for them to take head on, which speaks to the power of graphic novels and comics. Just like they couldn’t stop the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story comic from inspiring a generation of young people to join the civil rights movement, they can’t stop March from inspiring a new generation.

In 2015, before New York City adopted the book, the congressman and I went to the New York Federal Reserve to speak about March, which I thought was a preposterous place to be invited to speak. But we were very excited to go. I remember saying in my speech, “Every school child in America needs to be reading this book before they graduate from high school.” I will never forget the uproarious laughter that statement was met with by that audience.

Looking back on it, it is just such a beautiful example of the power of an idea whose time has come. Just six years ago, people were laughing at the idea that we would use comics to teach about the civil rights movement. Now, the book they laughed at is taught in just about every major school system in America.

We can change things, but they can also be rolled back just as quickly. There are still people, no doubt today, looking to find ways to challenge March, to bring it out of the classroom and scale back teaching the civil rights movement. They want to teach a Netflix miniseries version of the civil rights movement. And I guess in some ways, that’s the pressure of doing Run right now. But I think keeping these books alive, in classrooms, in front of young people—that’s the best thing we can do to keep John Lewis’s memory, history, and spirit alive for generations who may never know him.

I just hope I can carry this work forward. Because I think even in the circles that say they want civil rights taught, they don’t want to teach the unvarnished truth. But that was what John Lewis made sure we put down on paper. He would say, “Make it real. Make it plain. Tell the truth. Tell the whole truth; don’t sweep anything under the rug.” That’s why March and Run resonate: because you see the conflict, the disagreements, the success, and the failures. If we don’t show all of that, then it becomes impossible for young people—or people not so young—to see the commonalities that exist today.

These pivotal figures in history are kind of frozen in amber in popular thinking: Martin Luther King Jr. giving the “Dream” speech, John Lewis being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Rosa Parks remaining in her seat on the bus. But in the case of some, like Lewis, there are decades and decades of history that follow those iconic moments. I’m curious about the process you went through deciding to include events such as the disputes within SNCC and by ending the book with Lewis not being sure what would come next. I also appreciated the attention and fond feelings that Julian Bond gets in this book reflecting his early history with Lewis. Because it would also be easy to, maybe, gloss over that, given that they had history later down the road when they ran against each other for Congress in the 1980s.

Which is a long way of leading into a question: As you worked on this with Lewis, what was his thinking of opening Run with this particular slice of history?
I think it’s important to understand the congressman and Julian had reconciled. I don’t think you can understand John Lewis from 1960 to 1986 without understanding the arc of his friendship with Julian Bond. Remember, Julian goes on to be nominated for vice president at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and John was right beside him. And then, a year or two later, John Lewis wrote a letter to Julian saying, “I think you should run for the fifth district seat.” (Which Andy Young ended up doing.) If you want to understand politics, and Atlanta, if you want to understand Black politics in the South, you have to understand the relationship between those two men.

In Run, the battle lines drawn in the fight over whether or not to seat Julian Bond in the General Assembly are the same battle lines that have been drawn today. That pushback Julian received is a perfect illustration of the fight we are facing today. If we understand that history, we can understand why they don’t want us to hand out water bottles to people registering to vote. These are the same fights; they’re using the same tactics. When President Obama says that the filibuster is a Jim Crow relic, just look at what Strom Thurmond used it for, as we covered in March.

The forces of white supremacy, whatever political party they may be in at the time, use the rules and change the rules of the democratic process to stay in power and to keep people with less money—and who are less white—out of power. What we’re also seeing today goes beyond race and into class, because what we’re really talking about is your ability to earn a living wage. Far too many people—just like in 1965—are being left out. It goes right back to the points on the platform for the March on Washington. When they called for a wage back then, it was $2 an hour; that’s the equivalent of $16 an hour today. It’s the same fight.

We really try in Run to highlight that, because that’s how it starts. You get a state representative elected. Then you get a state senator. Then you get a congressperson. All of a sudden, you might have enough votes to raise the minimum wage or to guarantee healthcare for every American. First you march, then you run. You can’t just be an activist. We need public servants to follow, because that’s the only way the laws get changed. And that’s the only way this becomes a permanent change.

There’s a spread in the book featuring the protest over Julian Bond at the Gold Dome and the statue of segregationist Tom Watson that has since been replaced with one of Martin Luther King, Jr. How important are physical replacements like this, or name changes? If we name a building or a plaza after John Lewis, or change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in honor of him, how much does that matter?
Well, John Lewis never wanted the name of that bridge to change. He didn’t want that part of our dark history to be swept under the rug.

I think symbols, though, are important. It’s a way for us to demonstrate our values as a society. If it wasn’t important, why did so many fans of the Confederacy, for lack of a better word, spend so much time putting up so many statues of people who were essentially traitors? But symbols alone, without context and an understanding of why they’re important, never achieve the understanding we hope they will bring [and they] cannot be the only efforts we make. We have to teach a greater understanding of who these people are, what they accomplished, how they did it, and why they did it. Because that’s what all too often is lost. Why did they march? And then, when we try to relate those reasons to our lives today, we’re surprised when people don’t understand the nuance, because we never gave them the context. We have to give them the context.

A version of this article appears in our August 2021 issue.