Remembering John Lewis

Sharon Carson |

We at NDQ join with people around the country and the world in grief over the loss last week of John Lewis, a lifelong and tireless activist for human rights and human dignity.

Lewis, who died on July 17 at age 80, has long been an iconic figure for the Black Civil Rights Movement of the mid twentieth century, and there were many commentators last week who focused on that remarkable legacy.  Others who were more aware of his legislative labors in the U.S. Congress since 1987 tried to keep that work in public view as well, especially important when one of Lewis’s central issues, voting rights, continue to be imperiled for millions of Americans.

1991 003 000 Lawrence Slide Scan EditedConfrontation at the Bridge (1975) by Jacob Lawrence.

We’d like to focus for a few moments on John Lewis’s work and life in another key: Lewis as a writer and as a subject for visual artists and filmmakers.

In 2014, Lewis gave the commencement address at the School for Visual Art New York City. His invitation there was not surprising: Lewis had long been a supporter of the arts and was someone who was also the subject of some of the most familiar journalistic photographiy  from the 1960s:

One example, the work of photographer Steve Shapiro.

The Guardian ran a photo essay dedicated to Lewis over this past weekend, a collection of images especially valuable for its visual reminder of the political importance of documentary photography and also a reminder that Lewis continued to get arrested until very recently (and all during his service in Congress) as a result of his lifelong commitment to social justice and non-violent direct action.

But another reason Lewis spoke at the 2014 SVA NYC graduation grew from his collaborative work on March, a three volume graphic novel about his early life and his participation in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and Selma.

March John Lewis Andrew Aydin Nate Powell  March March Series Book 1 Top Shelf Productions  2013

March is a now multi award-winning project and Lewis created this series with SVA alum and graphic artist Nate Powell along with comics writer Andrew Aydin.

Here’s a review of March by Luigi Novi for ComicMix: and Julian Lucas’s review in the New York Times. (It brought some sweet comfort to many people to learn over the weekend that Lewis had cosplayed himself at Comic-Con).

And here you will find a moving NPR interview from a few days ago, with Andrew Aydin, remembering John Lewis and their collaborative work on March.

There is also a new Dawn Porter documentary out for early streaming with John Lewis as its subject: John Lewis: Good Trouble. Here is the trailer, and here is more on filmmaker and director Dawn Porter and her film company Trilogy Films.

Good Trouble spends a great deal of time reminding viewers that voter suppression remains a serious issue today, and Porter juxtaposes a retrospective look at Lewis’s work in the Civil Rights era with his very recent work to advance and protect voting rights.  The film is a clear call to action in the present and an invitation for Americans across the country to step up.

Good Trouble and March are recent works of visual art which also make it impossible to place John Lewis in a nostalgic haze, something we are also seeing in some public reactions to his death.

Scholar Jeanne Theoharis’s book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Abuses of Civil Rights History is an important corrective to romanticizing the Civil Rights era, and here is a brief interview with Theoharis done by Ibram X. Kendi for the African American Intellectual History Society blog Black Perspectives. This gets right to it.

John Lewis ended his commencement speech at SVA with his familiar call to action, this time specifically directed at young artists.  He called on them to get in the way of injustice, to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“Use the pen, use the pencil, use the camera…you have a mandate to get out and disturb the order of things.”

May John Lewis rest in peace, while the work continues.

~

Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.

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