Over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday I sat down with a comic book. We call them graphic novels now, but when I was a kid they were called comics. They portrayed superheroes, who were ordinary people by day and extraordinary people by night — people with alter egos and fanciful costumes. All of the superheroes had backstories, reasons why they were so intent on doing what was right and fighting for justice for all.
- Jeremy Rutledge
Yet the comic I sat down with this week told the story of a different kind of hero. It was March, a three-volume set about the life of John Lewis. Yes, that John Lewis. We all know Congressman Lewis has been in a dispute with the president-elect. Congressman Lewis questioned the president-elect’s legitimacy after our intelligence agencies reached a rare unanimous conclusion that the government of Russia conspired to interfere in the U.S. election. Congressman Lewis knows a thing or two about government’s legitimacy after having been beaten nearly to death by the Alabama state police in Selma in March of 1965. He understands that a government’s true legitimacy is derived not only from the votes it receives, but also from the actions of its representatives. The most legitimate governments are moral, ethical, and just.
The truth of this assertion is shown graphically at the beginning of March. The opening pages, vividly illustrated by Nate Powell, contain very little dialogue. Instead, they portray Lewis and others in the freedom struggle attempting to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and being tear-gassed and beaten. Whap! Krak! Thud! reads the comic, and my gut felt the same way as I turned the pages. It’s not easy being reminded that within living memory the government was violently attacking people of color who were marching peacefully in order to win the civil rights spelled out in our Constitution. They kept marching, however, and made gains for us all. As I pored over the panels, it occurred to me that the real superheroes are not in comic books.
John Lewis did not have an alter ego. He was just a young man in a shirt and tie who stood on a bridge with others. He was an ordinary person with a basic belief in the promises of this country. He was someone whose only backstory was that of a conscience so stirred that he dressed for the day and joined with others. Nothing Lewis did required super powers; all of it was commonplace.
- The first installment of 'March' details Lewis' upbringing.
In his consideration of national pride, the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty suggested that in order to develop a healthy sense of American self identity, we should “tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past. . .to which the country should remain true.” Rorty contended that such narratives are powerful, grounding us in the best examples of who we might be. As a pragmatist, Rorty would have been most concerned with how our ideas are fleshed out in the world of lived experience. In other words, how do the stories we tell lead us to live — as individuals, as citizens, as neighbors?
It’s a perfect question for the moment we’re in. Our president-elect has presented himself as a superhero. “I alone can fix it,” he says. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ordinary people board buses for the Women’s March on Washington. We will stand up for each other, they say. The only way to fix it is communal. Thus, a certain conflict is born. It isn’t quite the contest between those old comic book superheroes and their archrivals, but there are varying narratives on display. Are we a country that looks to a man in a shiny suit to save us? Or are we a country that finds ordinary heroes all around? Every time a man stands on a bridge. Every time a woman climbs onto a bus. Every time a kid picks up a graphic novel, reads the story of the freedom struggle and decides she would like to join.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any superheroes as long as I’ve got John Lewis. As long as we’ve got each other.