Shortly after noon on August 26, 1961, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Elmer Hayes filled two vacant stools at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in McComb, Mississippi. When the two African American students were refused service at the segregated dining spot, police arrested the pair for failing to “disperse and move on” in violation of Jim Crow laws.

Both men carried copies of a 10-cent comic book that had long been circulating among young civil rights activists. A year earlier, the 16-page comic had inspired Ezell Blair and his roommate, Joseph McNeill, to stage boycotts in Greensboro, North Carolina. Days after reading it, they and two other North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students refused to give up their seats at a Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter, launching the sit-in movement across the South.

The comic book that helped spark a generation of young civil rights protestors did not feature superheroes, but a 42-year-old seamstress and a 26-year-old Baptist pastor. Printed in 1957, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story recounts the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began after police arrested civil rights activist Rosa Parks for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The successful protest that ended segregation on Montgomery’s buses propelled the young pastor who led the movement, Martin Luther King Jr., to national fame.

When Comic Books Were Radical

The idea for the comic book came from Alfred Hassler, publications director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith social justice organization that promotes nonviolent activism. The publishing format was an unusual choice not only because the fellowship had no experience publishing comic books, but because comic books were detested by many Americans in the 1950s as a corrupting influence on the morals of America’s youth. 

In 1954, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held televised hearings on the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, and schools and civic organizations staged bonfire burnings of “lurid” comic books. Even Hassler himself forbade his children from reading them. Still, he saw the medium’s value in reaching a different, younger audience than a conventional book.

The graphic novel was first printed in 1957.

“It was incredibly courageous to make a comic book at that time, but also more possible than ever for an organization like the Fellowship of Reconciliation to work with top-notch illustrators,” says Andrew Aydin, who wrote his master’s thesis on the history and impact of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. “The people who worked on it were driven out of the comic book industry by associating and working with some of the companies targeted by the hearings.”

Hassler and Benton Resnik collaborated on the text, while artist Sy Barry, best known for his work on The Phantom comic strip, illustrated the book. King, himself, not only approved of the project, but made small editorial changes to the script. The text detailed the bus boycott and included practical instruction on how activists could use the nonviolent “Montgomery Method” of protest to bring about social change.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation distributed 250,000 copies of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story to schools, churches and civil rights groups. Beyond U.S. borders, it eventually inspired anti-apartheid protests in South Africa before the government banned the comic book’s possession. The Fellowship of Reconciliation distributed Spanish-language editions in Latin America, and decades on, Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada worked to have the comic book translated into Arabic and Farsi. After getting approval under Egypt’s rigorous censorship laws, Ziada distributed the comic book in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab Spring that resulted in the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Inspiration for John Lewis

John Lewis at Selma
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Rep. John Lewis shows pictures of police attacking himself and other marchers on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Among the comic book’s early readers was an 18-year-old student activist named John Lewis. Lewis received a copy while attending a 1958 Nashville workshop to prepare for the freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. The civil rights pioneer went on to share the dais in front of the Lincoln Memorial with the hero of that comic book during the 1963 March on Washington, and two years later Lewis and King marched side by side from Selma to Montgomery.

By 2008, Lewis was a Georgia congressman running for re-election and having a conversation with Aydin, his campaign press secretary, and other staff about plans for after Election Day. When Aydin’s mention of plans to attend an upcoming comic book festival elicited chuckles from his colleagues, Lewis said, “Don’t laugh.” He then explained the impact that Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on his life.

“I had never heard of that comic,” says Aydin, a digital director and policy adviser on Lewis’s staff. “I read it that night and thought, why is there not a John Lewis comic book? It answered this constant question we had about how to tell the congressman’s story and educate a new generation about his work in the civil rights movement.” Although he repeatedly balked at Aydin’s suggestions that the congressman write a comic book of his own, Lewis eventually agreed—as long as Aydin wrote it with him.

After several years of work, the idea grew into the graphic novel trilogy March, the third book of which earned the National Book Award. The three volumes published between 2013 and 2016 detail the experiences of Lewis growing up in rural Alabama, his first encounter with King and his participation in student sit-ins, protest marches and freedom rides.

Although Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020, had written about his life in two prior books, the graphic novel medium connected him to a new audience. The books were, in essence, a sequel to Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. 

“That comic ends in 1956 and the John Lewis story really picks up in 1958, the year he meets Martin Luther King,” Aydin says. “It’s the next chapter.”