Students, faculty, staff and residents of Huntsville, Texas were treated with a rare honor on the evening of April 24, 2017 when the National Book Awards Festival presented the winners of the NBAF at the Lowman Student Center at Sam Houston State University. This year’s recipients were a trio of distinguished gentlemen by the names of U.S. Representative John Lewis, Andrew Ayden and Nate Powell. The three individuals worked together to write and publish a graphic novel aptly titled “March”. It’s a true story detailing the harrowing and courage battle for African American civil rights during the sixties.
Representative John Lewis was raised on February 21, 1940 outside of Troy Alabama. His parents worked a farm that they owned raising chickens and growing peanuts. He described it as hard work but he also maintained a healthy academic life as a young child-particularly in religious studies. He made several humorous anecdotes about being the son of a farmer “As a child when I was eight or nine years old I wanted to be a minister, one of my uncles got me a bible and I studied the bible. With the help of all my cousins, brothers and sisters we would gather all the chickens together in the chicken yard and I would read my bible to the chickens and some would bow their heads, some of the chickens would shake their heads and some of them just ignored me and I’m sure some of those chickens listened to me more than some of my colleagues.”
At young age he came across a comic book titled “The Martin Luther King & The Montgomery Story” and was inspired to resist the tide of racism that swept the south. At the age of seventeen he applied for acceptance to Troy University and was denied due to the color of his skin. Undeterred he wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King asking for help. Dr. King later replied and gave him names and addresses of local human rights advocates; upon meeting them he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and eventually would spearhead the Civil Rights movement alongside MLK and A. Philip Randolph. They would lead several marches that ended in bloody repression; he himself was arrested over forty times. The perseverance of the Civil Rights Movement would eventually pay off in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He would eventually be an elected official for the state of Georgia where he maintains his chair as representative for Georgia’s 5th district.
His associate Andrew Aydin, an Atlanta resident himself grew up reading and collecting comic books. Upon graduating from college he took a job as Rep. Lewis’ aide. Upon learning about Rep. Lewis’ inspiration to follow Doctor King from the comic book the two of them began collaborating on the project with Nate Powell an Eisner award winning illustrator. The three of them felt that too many young students only know a limited amount about the struggle for civil and human rights “The Martin Luther King comic was the most beautiful thing and we felt that if we were to inspire the next generation then we need to speak their language.”
While it’s true that comic books are considered a form of entertainment they can have a profound impact in regards to social awareness. Nate Powell describes the affect that a particular New Mutants issue had on him in dealing with racism and suicide. Stories such as that motivated him to study at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York. “March” is not only this year’s winner of the prestigious National Book Award but it’s the first graphic novel to receive it.