The Comic That Inspired A Movement

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery StoryIn the late 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength throughout the country, the peace organization The Fellowship of Reconciliation saw the need to promote their philosophy of nonviolent resistance to as many people as possible. To accomplish this, they used one of the most accessible formats of the day – the comic book – to tell the story of the successful bus boycotts by African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, and the man who helped inspire them.

The comic, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story ($5.00, 978-1-60309-333-0), was handed out at churches and nonviolence workshops, and was the inspiration for many figures in the Civil Rights Movement, including Rep. John Lewis, whose own story is told in Top Shelf Productions' graphic novel series March. March was co-written by Rep. Lewis and his aide Andrew Aydin, who was well-versed in The Montgomery Story, having written his college thesis on the comic book.

Top Shelf is now bringing Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story to a modern audience with a new printing of the comic book, which is currently available for order from library wholesalers.

In this interview, Aydin details the history of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, and sheds light on how this book became significant in comics and American history.

Diamond: When did you first read this comic, and what was it about the comic that made such an impact on you?

I read Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story for the first time in the summer of 2008. I was captivated by the idea of this comic book being responsible for inspiring direct nonviolent action. You read comics most of your life and somewhere along the line you think, "Man, it'd be cool if I could fly," or something like that. And here was a comic where you didn't need superpowers to do what the characters were doing. It had many of the same principles of justice like those of a lot of mainstream super hero comics but you didn't have be from Krypton or born into a billionaire family to fight in the same way as the characters in the comic. In fact, their way of fighting was much more intelligent. They weren't leveling cities in epic battles; they were outsmarting and outmaneuvering their opponents.

Diamond: You did your thesis on the comic? Could you briefly describe/explain how you went about that?

Andrew Aydin (AA): I did. There wasn't a lot to go on or too many people interested in Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story at the time so I had to take more of a gumshoe approach to research. I reached out to the few people who had written about the comic before and asked them a lot of questions until I was able to get a look at some of the original letters between Alfred Hassler, Benton Resnik, and others. That got me talking to Jim Lawson and other people associated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation past and present. Along the way, Professor Sylvia Rhor was incredibly helpful. All the while, Eddie Campbell was giving me feedback from a comics history perspective about what I was piecing together and how it all fit.

Diamond: Could you (briefly) put the comic in historical perspective? How did people get this comic? What did they think of comics at the time?

AA: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was published just a few years after the hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that marked somewhat of a high-water mark in the anti-comics hysteria of the time. The comic wasn’t distributed through the usual outlets such as newsstands; instead it was distributed primarily through churches and schools. Staff members from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, including Jim Lawson and Glen Smiley, traveled throughout the South giving nonviolent workshops, at the end of which they would distribute the comic so that young people had something to take with them to read and study.   

Diamond: What (if anything) do we know about the creators of the book? Do we know why they decided to use the comic format to tell this story?

AA: We know that Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik worked together on the story treatment and script but we do not know the name of the artist, at least not yet. We know that some of the earliest conversations about creating the comic occurred between Alfred Hassler and Glen Smiley as they tried to find a way bring the story of the Montgomery bus boycotts to the broadest possible audience. In a letter, Dr. King himself offered his full support of the project as well as a few small editorial suggestions that did in fact make it into the final version of the comic.

Diamond: Do the proceeds from the comic go to any charity?

AA: Yes, all of the proceeds go to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Diamond: Both you and Rep. Lewis have said The Montgomery Story was a key inspiration for March. How are you hoping to carry on that legacy with March?

AA: It is my hope that just as Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story used the Montgomery bus boycotts as an example to inspire young people to take up nonviolence, March will bring those next chapters to a new generation to inspire them to once again take up nonviolence to address the many challenges facing our society.

Diamond: Speaking of March, can you give us any info on the next volumes?     

AA: We are working hard. Book Two is a longer book. The story picks up a few months after we left off in Book One and we enter a much more violent period of the movement. Within the first dozen pages John Lewis is nearly killed by an industrial fumigator.

Diamond: Earlier this year, you accompanied Rep. Lewis on a tour of civil rights landmarks, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What was that experience like, especially after working on March?

AA: It was an incredible experience to visit those places, to see them first hand while listening to John Lewis and others offer their recollections. It was a very humbling reminder that the characters in March are towering figures in history that led lives of unbelievable courage. Nate and I walked away from that trip flush with inspiration to work even harder to tell these stories.  

Diamond: What is it about the Civil Rights Movement that inspires you? What's it like working for someone who was such an instrumental part of American history?

AA: The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most effective social movements of the 20th century and it succeeded without violence. I think it is one of those periods in history that everyone should know about and understand because of how much it has affected our society since then. Many of the same political battle lines exist today. But more than anything, what always resonates with me the most about the Civil Rights Movement is how much of the successful direct action was organized and led by young people. John Lewis was twenty-three years old when he was began serving as chairman of SNCC and spoke at the March on Washington, barely twenty-five years old when he led the first Selma to Montgomery march. He represented a class of young people who were putting their bodies on the line day in and day out to move their cause forward, and I think we all need to examine that today and ask ourselves, "What can I do to contribute?"

Diamond: What about this comic do you think speaks to people of today?

AA: I think people are frustrated. They are tired of seeing things not make sense, tired of our society not seeming fair or just. This comic reminds them that, in another period, there were people who faced an incredibly unfair and unequal social order, and they did something about it. They fought for themselves, without guns or bombs (though they were certainly used against them), and they changed the direction of society.

I think also that Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story is a powerful example of comics' capacity for good. It took a great deal of foresight to publish Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story at a time when comic books were reviled and treated as a corrupting influence. Inadvertently, Hassler, Resnik, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and whoever the artist may be, proved that the countless critics were, if not wrong, at least terribly misguided. Today, we look at comics and graphic novels differently. The old argument that graphic novels aren't "books", no matter their subject, is losing steam. As we reassess our values in literature, as comics and graphic novels become increasingly commonplace in our schools, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story is an important milestone on the journey to how we got to where we are today.

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