As the fight over voting rights intensifies, a longtime aide to late Congressman John Lewis hopes young Americans will use the lessons in the civil rights leader’s posthumous graphic novel to change lawmakers’ minds on the issue.
Lewis’ novel, “Run: Book One,” comes amid efforts in state legislatures to enact restrictive voter laws, efforts that members of Congress are attempting to block through legislation. It is also being released August 3 — three days before the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 becoming law.
“I think the young people who read this graphic novel will change their minds,” Andrew Aydin, who co-authored the novel with Lewis and served on his congressional staff for 13 years, told CNN when asked if the novel could change lawmakers’ minds on voting rights. “Hopefully this graphic novel gives members of Congress some context and some understanding for what they’re up against. I think the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn in Congress. It’s up to the young people to use these lessons to change the dynamic, to change the battle lines …”
In the novel, obtained by CNN, Lewis details his struggles as a young leader and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with vivid illustrations that capture police brutality and violent acts against Blacks following the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Even with the new protections from the Voting Rights Act, what could we do if they kept killing us? We had the right to vote — on paper at least — but the white supremacist power structure continued to be willing to murder in cold blood to stop us from using it,” Lewis writes in the novel.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honor of the Georgia congressman, aims to restore the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the US Supreme Court and is part of Democrats’ legislative efforts to protect voting rights. The For the People Act, which aims to counter GOP-led states from advancing voting restrictions by making it easier for voters to cast ballots by mail among other provisions, passed the House earlier this year but was blocked by Republicans in the Senate in late June. Both measures face tough odds in Congress where Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate.
Eighteen states have passed 30 new laws restricting voting as of mid-July, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Rejection and working together
The son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, Lewis became a towering figure of the civil rights movement, championing voter rights and serving as a longtime US congressman before his death July 17, 2020, at age 80, following a six-month battle with cancer.
As a young activist, Lewis organized sit-ins, participated in Freedom Rides and at 23 years old, spoke at the historic March on Washington — fragments of a long record of action that included, by his count, more than 40 arrests while demonstrating against racial and social injustice.
He recalls in the book dividing differences within SNCC on continuing a nonviolence philosophy and integrating the group with Black and White members. Lewis also recalls pushback by other civil rights groups on certain issues and a painful experience during his involvement with SNCC — his replacement as the group’s leader by Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights activist best known for popularizing the phrase, “Black Power.”
“As much as I tried to keep the dark feelings at bay — the rejection, the sense of loss — it was impossible to escape,” he writes. “Every fiber of my being was tied up in SNCC. It was a rejection of us. It was a rejection of all we fought for and worked hard for.”
Aydin said young Americans and activists can take away from Lewis’ experiences that even among disagreements, debates and philosophical differences, people can still work together.
“What made the civil rights movement so strong is that despite those differences, after they would have a long night of debate and they would talk about all the elements of the problem they faced, they still showed up and worked in the morning,” he said.
Lessons for Congress and young activists
A Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, Lewis was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress because of his decades-long embodiment of a nonviolent fight for civil rights.
Asked what Lewis would say to members of Congress now, Aydin said the late Congressman would “remind his colleagues to listen to the young people.”
“There are young people out there now who have incredible ideas and yet the older folks don’t always understand it,” Aydin said. “The lessons of Run give us a candid reminder of how important it is that we all work together even if our philosophies are different.”
And despite Lewis’ serious demeanor, he also had a fun side and embraced comics as a way to tell overlooked parts of the country’s history to young Americans. He published The New York Times bestselling “March” series in the graphic novel form and attended Comic-Con conventions, including one where he cosplayed his younger self in a replica of what he wore at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Asked why Lewis wanted to publish “Run: Book One” as a graphic novel, Aydin said the congressman recognized comics as “the language of this generation.”