Miami Book Fair International 2013: Congressman John Lewis, Comic Book Hero

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Ned Ahrens
John Lewis in 2010.
March: Book One isn't just a graphic novel. It's an autobiography, a coming-of-age story, and a call to action all rolled up into one. The book's co-author, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, uses the graphic novel to reflect on how his childhood experiences set him on the path of non-violence and civil activism.

The graphic novel will be one of the books highlighted at this year's Miami Book Fair International. As great as learning about Lewis' life through sequential art is, it certainly doesn't compare to hearing about Lewis' life from the congressman himself.

Believe it or not, Lewis' focus on equality stemmed from an unlikely source--raising chickens.

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"Growing up there on the farm as a young child with six brothers and three sisters [and a] wonderful mother and father, I fell in love with the responsibilities I had to take care of on the farm. One that I loved more than anything was raising the chickens," he said. "The chickens taught me patience. They taught me hard work and they taught me not to give up--to be hopeful, to be optimistic."

His chickens also served as practice for his later battles with injustice. "I think my first nonviolent protest was protesting my parents when they wanted to exchange a chicken for [goods from] the 'rolling store' man, the man that came by on an old...pickup truck and sell goods," he said. "Sometimes my parents didn't have enough money...to buy certain produce, so they would exchange a chicken...when they would kill a chicken for dinner, I wouldn't speak to them...because these were chickens I'd raised. I didn't raise a chicken for them to have a chicken for a meal. I wanted to keep the chickens...These chickens became an extension of the family."

Similar to how hundreds have gathered to hear Lewis speak about equality, Lewis' chickens would act as his congregation, listening to a young Lewis preach from the Bible.

"With my brothers and sisters and cousins...we'd gather all the chickens together in the chicken yard...and they [would] make up the audience, the congregation, and I would start speaking and preaching," he said. "When I look back on it, some of the chickens would shake their heads, bow their heads, and I tell young people today [that] these chickens never quite said 'Amen,' but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. And some of those chickens were more productive, too. At least they produced the eggs."

Growing up on a farm in Pike County, Alabama, Lewis saw his fair share of the ugliness festering in the South, a place that was then still trying to hold onto an antiquated way of life. "Growing up, I saw segregation, I saw racial discrimination, and I didn't like it...[M]y mother and father and my grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts--they worked so hard in the field. At the end of the year, they would go deeper and deeper in debt, and they didn't have much to show for it. I would ask them, 'Why do you keep doing this?' and my mother would say, 'This is the only thing we know how to do,'" he said. "We would visit the little town of Troy and visit Montgomery and Tuskeegee...I would see those signs that said 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women,' and I would say, 'Why?' And they would say, 'That's how it is. Don't get into any trouble.'

"I heard Rosa Parks when I was about 15 years old in the 10th grade. I heard Martin Luther King in the same year, 1955. The actions of Rosa Parks and the action and leadership of Martin Luther King inspired me to find a way to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and that's exactly what I did."

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