July 14, 2015 – SAN DIEGO — Some 50-plus years since committing to drag a deeply divided nation toward a brighter tomorrow, Rep. John Lewis recently turned not to well-heeled donors or seasoned pols for help, but to a roomful of children.
“When you see something that is not right, you must disturb the order of things,” the Georgia Democrat implored the hundreds of kids who gathered on July 12 at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation to hear from the visiting civil rights icon.
Lewis, in town to promote the second installment of his autobiographical graphic novel, “March,” at Comic-Con International, spoke to a group of at-risk youths who live in a world far removed from the pop culture spectacle.
The Elementary Institute of Science helped organize the educational program, putting donated copies of Lewis’ illustrated life story in the hands of approximately 250 local students.
“You’re so young. You’re so smart. You’re so gifted,” Lewis told the sea of upturned faces fanned out before him.
Along with recounting, rather bluntly, some of the evils visited upon him in his pursuit of parity, the Georgia Democrat reveled in a recent high: leading a handful of kids on a ceremonial stroll through Comic-Con.
“It was a good feeling to walk through Comic-Con with very, very young children. It felt like I was marching again from Selma to Montgomery,” he told audience members of the crowd-parting procession that, a day earlier, had wended its way from his panel discussion down to the convention floor.
Oak Park Elementary teacher Mick Rabin and some of his third graders had been along for that momentous ride. And he was still shaken by the experience.
“It’s just unbelievable to imagine these kids getting to walk with their hero,” Rabin, who estimates he’s carefully dissected “March” with some 60-odd students over the past year, told CQ Roll Call.
Rabin said he’d long been familiar with Lewis’ activism — he recalled being particularly moved by “Eyes on the Prize,” PBS’ series on civil rights leaders — but was rather stunned a few years back when he saw the lawmaker’s name attached to a Top Shelf Productions email blast about forthcoming projects. Once he discovered Lewis was working on the illustrated history lesson and would be traveling to Comic-Con, Rabin said he knew what he had to do.
“I couldn’t resist, I had to go see him and meet him,” Rabin said of his decision to seek out the pol during his 2013 trip to the trade show.
Rabin said he devoured “Book One” and shortly thereafter began brainstorming about incorporating it into his lesson plans. “I thought, ‘What’s the possibility that this is something that I could read with my class?’” he said.
So he hunted down relevant background materials, set aside a decent chunk of time to digest the source material (about three weeks) and then dove in.
“We pick the book apart,” Rabin said of the thoughtful examination he’s conducted over the past two years.
The first cohort of kids was so enthusiastic about the exercise, Rabin randomly dropped Lewis a line to see about keeping the momentum going.
“I emailed him. And then about a week later his office contacted me and said, ‘When would you like the interview?’” Rabin said, noting the lawmaker agreed to chat via Skype.
By the time the interview date rolled around in March 2014, Rabin said the kids were ready with personal questions and original poems to share.
“To him, it’s probably just another day of interaction with a lot of different kids. My kids were seriously forever transformed by that event. It transformed me,” Rabin said of the meaningful exchange.
Rabin reintroduced “March” into the equation this year, tacking on a companion read about Mohandas Gandhi to broaden everyone’s perspective. When his students clamored for more, they hatched a scheme to interview Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the spiritual leader. He, too, was game to spoon-feed young minds via video conference.
“The kids are really fired up. They’re all devoted to social justice,” Rabin said of his students’ thirst for knowledge.
That desire to connect the dots between then and now became self-evident when the kids who’d made their way to the Jacobs Center solicited advice from Lewis about dealing with modern problems.
A query regarding the plight of transgendered teens in an unfriendly world prompted Lewis to advocate for greater acceptance.
“No one, but no one, should be put down because of sexual orientation,” Lewis counseled, stressing, “You cannot have equality for some and not equality for all.”
When one young lady wondered why on Earth Lewis appeared to be smiling in a mug shot taken in Mississippi in 1961, the veteran agitator told her that even then he knew in his heart that the temporary discomfort would eventually be worth it.
“I believed in the future. I never became bitter,” Lewis relayed. “[And] because of what we did, those signs that said ‘white waiting’ and ‘colored waiting’ came tumbling down.”
“Mmm-hmm, absolutely,” an older woman in the crowd readily agreed.
During their times at the mics, “March” collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell credited Uncanny X-Men # 317 and punk rock, respectively, for instilling in them a desire to fight for what’s right.
Per Powell, comics remain one of the most blessedly simple forms of freedom of expression.
“Truly you only need paper, a pen and an idea,” he said.
Aydin went a step further, challenging the wide eyes locked on his gaze to look out for one another and strive toward a better tomorrow.
“You are more free than anyone else. You don’t have a mortgage. You don’t have a child. You don’t even have a dog,” he quipped. “So join us. March.”