Ahimsa (The Way of Nonviolence)
Top Shelf Productions, 2013
Reviewed by Seana Graham
As we come up on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought it might be nice to talk about a graphic “novel” that came out last year, a memoir in cartoon form by the noted congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis. The work is a collaboration between Lewis, Andrew Aydin, who works for Lewis’s office in telecommunication and technology, and Nate Powell, a graphic novelist. The form of the book is itself an homage to a work that was one of the early means of dissemination of Dr. King’s message, a comic book that came out in 1958 called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
March: Book One begins with the story of Lewis’s childhood, when his compassion for the family chickens gave early evidence of his concern for helpless and suffering creatures, and his determination to get an education was sometimes at odds with his sharecropping family’s aspirations for him. A trip north provided by a generous uncle showed him other possibilities about how blacks and whites might live together than those he’d yet been exposed to.
From early on, he had ambitions to become a preacher, practicing on those very chickens for lack of another audience. He noticed, though, that the preacher of the church he attended didn’t live among his “flock” and in fact had the best car. One morning in 1955, Lewis happened to hear a sermon on the radio by an unknown preacher which spoke of “the social gospel”, and Lewis was electrified by his words. The preacher, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lewis was accepted into an all black theological seminary, but though he was stimulated by the school, he didn’t find its goals radical enough for the times, so eventually he wrote to Martin Luther King, expressing his frustrations. This lead to an invitation to meet with King, who asked Lewis if he’d be willing to attempt the integration of Troy State, his hometown college. It would be Lewis’s parents, though, who would have to file the lawsuit, and in the end Lewis was unable to persuade them to take what was, after all, an enormous risk.
As Lewis says, though, the “Spirit of History” took hold of his life anyway, and learning the way of nonviolence espoused by Gandhi and King, he found himself in the midst of some of the key civil rights moments of our time, including one that is recounted in detail here, the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins.
Although I am in general sympathetic to the Occupy Movement’s goals, I was troubled when I saw footage of the Atlanta offshoot’s 2011 refusal to let John Lewis speak because “no individual is inherently more important” than any other. But Lewis himself was reportedly unperturbed. After all, he had encountered far more savage scorn in his life. And even he as a young man had been impatient with the old guard at times, realizing that their ambitions didn’t always go far enough. But he had also had the wisdom to allow himself to be inspired by the great civil rights leaders who’d preceded him.
No, no person is inherently more important than another. But sometimes their message and experience is. And, as an early practitioner of the way of nonviolence, Lewis continues to lead us by example. I’m looking forward to Book Two.