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George Mason University

Congressman John Lewis Speaks at Fall For The Book Festival

November 13, 2018

Authors John Lewis and Andrew Aydin spend a Thursday afternoon speaking to the Mason community about their bestselling graphic novel March: Book One—The Honors College 2018 summer selection

Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott greets Congressman John Lewis after the speaking portion of the eventIn 1956, 16-year-old Congressman John Lewis, now a featured speaker at this year’s Fall for the Book Festival, was declined a library card by his hometown librarian for being a person of color.  Lewis returned to the same library on July 5th, 1998 for the public signing event of his first book, Walking with the Wind.   

Lewis, now the author of the 2018 Mason Reads selection March: Book One, spent the afternoon of Thursday, October 11th sharing stories like this with the Mason community as part of the 20th annual Fall for the Book Festival.  

Every year, the Mason Reads program selects a common read.  Major themes from the selection are interwoven throughout freshman curricula and event programming, providing common ground for the incoming freshman class.  All HNRS 110 students read the book, discussing important elements with each other in and out of the classroom. Throughout the Fall 2018 semester, March has inspired many thoughtful conversations across campus about race, discrimination and privilege.   

Both authors were introduced by Mason history professor Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott, the crowd welcoming them with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.  The congressman spoke in Concert Hall theater, reflecting on his youth, his inspiration for writing March, and his book’s most impactful messages.  Alongside co-author Andrew Aydin, Lewis discussed the ways March brings Civil Rights Movement narratives to life.   

Growing up in the rural town of Troy, Alabama, the congressman told of how he initially wanted to be a preacher and preached to the chickens on his family’s land in Alabama.  Lewis was introduced to social justice in 10th grade after exposure to “the words and actions” of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.  The young Lewis quickly grew inquisitive about the segregation and discrimination he experienced.  

“I started asking a lot of questions.  Why are there signs saying colored men, white men?  Colored boys, white boys, colored girls, white girls?” Lewis explained to the crowd.  “My mother kept saying to me that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.”  

Lewis spoke about the concept of “good trouble,” reflecting on his more than 40 arrests, five of which occurred while serving in Congress.  Lewis expressed that each arrest resulted from him fighting for what he believes is right. “We need to make a little noise,” he insisted.  

At 18, Lewis traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to visit and speak with King, who nicknamed him “the boy from Troy.”  Through his connection to King, Lewis gained access to opportunities like speaking at the 1963 March on Washington at age 23. 

At Mason, Lewis spoke of racial unity, expressing the importance of people coming together to achieve equality at the march.  

“We all came here on different ships; we’re all in the same boat now,” said Lewis.  

March, a blend of the memoir and graphic novel genres, follows Lewis’ narrative as a civil rights leader.  Lewis highlights his early life, visually engaging readers with his involvement in the struggle against segregation and discrimination.   

March’s genre stems from Aydin’s love of comic books as a child.  Lewis and Aydin were also heavily influenced by King’s 1950s comic book detailing the struggles he faced in the Civil Rights Movement.  Both authors believe comic books serve as the perfect solution for attracting young readers in the digital age as visual storytelling becomes increasingly popular.  

Aydin emphasized how he wanted to capture Lewis’s humanity in his story to showcase that “greatness is within all of our grasps.”  Through March, both writers aimed to inspire the next generation to accomplish what they may think is unattainable.  Honors College students pose for a photo with authors Lewis and Aydin at the Center for the Arts.

The co-authors concluded their speeches by encouraging young people to vote. “[We need to] get out there and vote like we never ever voted before,” said Lewis, expressing that the world has come a long way, though we still have more to overcome.  The congressman holds hope for the future, leaving the audience with a lasting message of optimism: “Believe in the possibility of change.”  

Violence and intimidation did not stop Lewis, inspiring Mason students to follow his courageous lead.  Honors College sophomore Destini Manuel reflected positively on their discussion. “[Lewis] inspired me to strive and become a leader in this world despite all of the violence and intimidation,” said Manuel. 

After the discussion, both authors signed copies of their #1 New York Times bestseller, posing for photos with readers ranging from HNRS 110 students to the Fairfax community.  Lines to meet Lewis were long, each visitor appearing enthusiastic to shake hands with one of the Civil Right Movement’s most powerful and influential voices.   

Author John Lewis speaks about his adversity as a Civil Rights Movement leaderMarch is a departure from traditional print media, innovatively visualizing the hardships of resisting discrimination.  Reflecting on what fueled his fire to inspire positive change, Lewis pointed back to listening to the radio one day in 1955, initially hearing of civil rights leaders like Parks and King.  “The actions of Rosa Parks and words of MLK, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way,” said Lewis. “I got in the way.” 

 


Reporting by Jimmy O'Hara and Zaria Talley.  Photography by Ron Aira and Evan Cantwell.