Civil Rights, Comic Books, and Social Change


by Kathleen Kelley

Most people at Carlow University have little if any direct connection to the Civil Rights Movement.

But they once did.

Three faculty members felt those ties had grown too faint, organizing a two-day discussion group to discuss the graphic novel “March (Book One)” by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, published for the first time in 2013 about experiences more than a half-century earlier.

Dr. Linda Schifino, chair and associate professor of communications, worked with associate professor of art history and art Dr. Sylvia Rhor and Barbara Johnson, Carlow’s director of Diversity Initiatives, to bring together seven students, including undergraduate and graduate students, as well as another Carlow employee.

Each person — including the instructors — contributed experiences, thoughts, ideas, and stories about how the graphic novel, the Civil Rights Movement, and current civil rights issues have influenced their lives.

“March” is a graphic novel in three parts, a form that works as an interdisciplinary piece tying together art, history, and culture.

Dr. Rhor discussed “March” in the artistic sense and talked about the importance of artwork in history. She also highlighted “The Montgomery Story,” a comic book produced in 1956 depicting the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. Distributed secretly at churches and out of the backs of cars, this comic book was widely circulated among civil rights activists to spread their movement and their message of nonviolence.

Dr. Schifino focused her discussion on the steps of nonviolence. Students also learned about Carlow’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Alongside other nonviolent protesters and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sister Patricia McCann took several Carlow students to march in Alabama.

After each lecture students and faculty were able to discuss their reflections of the graphic novel, social movements, and current civil rights issues.

“When students, staff, and faculty come together to have meaningful dialogue about the intersections of art, history, and race, the richness of the university setting unfolds,” Johnson said. “As an African-American woman, it was inspiring to meet students who were eager to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement through this graphic novel. I too learned so much about the artistic focus of a graphic novel, history as told through the eyes of the amazing John Lewis, and the critical responses of our student participants! This was Book 1 of a series, so we hope to do more in the future!”

Dr. Schifino said, “John Lewis is a civil rights icon and life-long activist; so, when the first book in his trilogy was published, I knew I wanted to read it and share it with our Carlow students. The book served as a framework for faculty, students, and staff to explore issues of civil rights and race. It was an amazing shared experience.”

Our discussion group unanimously decided that the graphic novel was an important form to convey a message: graphic novels spark interest in a story, especially in those who may not be fond of reading. Even if someone is illiterate, pictures speak for themselves.

For children, just learning to read, graphic novels like “March” provide a look into history that can feel as entertaining as a comic book. Sparking a child’s interest with a graphic novel can  open the door to further interest and research.

Plus, graphic novels can be mass distributed and produced. They can be accessed online, making their message potentially viral. “The Montgomery Story” comic book, although first published decades ago, has been translated into hundreds of languages and was mass distributed during the Arab Spring in Egypt over the turmoil for the right to vote.

Imagine standing on a bridge over water attempting to cross but hundreds of angry-looking police officers are blocking your way. Now try to imagine those officers advancing with clubs, fists, and brute force and there is nowhere for you to go, especially if you cannot swim.

There is no place safe to hide.

One would think that a peaceful march across a bridge, and eventually across the state of Alabama, would be a proper form of protest. But something as simple as a peaceful march was a tremendous threat in the eyes of segregationists. Many people might brush this off as a chapter of our American history bound never to repeat itself. Remembering and reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement allows people to learn how to apply the ways of nonviolence to social inequities and violence.

Many countries still lack democracy, freedom, and the right to vote. Basic civil and social rights are still denied throughout many countries and continents of the world. Think of the Arab Spring, in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Or more recently, of the unrest in Ukraine and Venezuela. Plus, how can Americans forget the inequality and discrimination for the LGBT community in our own country and around the world?

Are we so naïve as to believe that the battle for civil rights has already been won?

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