In the spring of 2008, Andrew Aydin, a twentysomething aide and future policy adviser to Representative John Lewis, was driving the congressman to an event. “We got to talking about comic books,” Aydin later wrote in a piece for Creative Loafing, adapted from his master’s thesis. “I remember Lewis sitting in the front passenger seat as he gently teased me about attending Atlanta’s comic convention, Dragon Con. But then he said, ‘You know, there was a comic book during the movement. It was very influential.’”

Aydin was intrigued. The comic book, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, he soon discovered, played an important role in the civil-rights movement by depicting the bus boycott that had brought about the integration of Montgomery’s public-transportation system. Lewis never forgot that comic book.

Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to protest the lack of voting rights for Black Americans. John Lewis is at the far right.

In an era when graphic novels now earn literary awards, and spotlighted news events like Christian Cooper’s—the Black Central Park birder who had the police called on him by a white woman—are captured in graphic-novel form (It’s a Bird, DC Comics), it’s easy to forget that comics were once considered disposable pulp for youth. It’s easy, too, to forget with the passage of time how much the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a crusade of youth.

Black Superheroes

Dr. King was only 26 years old when the Montgomery bus boycott began, and John Lewis was just 18 when he met Dr. King for the first time. The Little Rock Nine were Black students attempting to de-segregate Little Rock Central High School, in Arkansas. A young girl named Claudette Colvin was only 15 when she became the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation—nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. And one of the most powerful moments in the civil-rights movement was the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, where hundreds of school-age children—some as young as seven and eight years old—marched to the mayor’s office. Many were arrested.

Policemen lead a group of Black schoolchildren to jail, following their arrest for protesting against racial discrimination near the city hall of Birmingham, Alabama, on May 4, 1963.

The Greensboro Four were led by Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil, freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, in Greensboro. When they were refused service at a Greensboro lunch counter reserved for whites, Blair and McNeil decided to take their own form of nonviolent protest. They had just read Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Inspired, they took seats at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in February of 1960, and within two weeks, their sit-in had sparked a student revolt across North Carolina. It spread to Tennessee, where students at Fisk University marched to sit in at all-white counters and dining tables in shops and department stores.

Dr. King was only 26 years old when the Montgomery bus boycott began, and John Lewis was just 18 when he met Dr. King for the first time.

It made sense that a 16-page comic book would have taken hold of young Black souls risking their lives to bring America to account. They were children and teenagers and college students—they were comic-book readers!—the perfect audience for the heroic story told in those graphic panels.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was first published in December 1957, by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the organization founded in 1915 by a group of pacifists. It was written by Benton Resnick and FOR’s director of publications, Alfred Hassler, and illustrated by Sy Barry, now 92, who drew the Phantom. The comic quickly spread among civil-rights groups and Black churches.

Two kids in Connecticut in 1955 who were “invited” by the American Legion Auxiliary to bring in comic books so they could be burned. In exchange, the kiddies got one “clean” book. Great job all around!

It was a leap of faith that FOR chose to tell the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in comic-book form. A few years earlier, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings about what they considered the subversive effects of comic books on young minds. As Aydin explained, comics were then more widely read than any other print medium, selling millions of issues each week. But the Senate hearings had a chilling effect: some churches, schools, and libraries even organized book burnings where children were encouraged to toss their comics into blazing fires. To fight back, publishers created the “Comics Code,” which would deem certain titles suitable for children and teenagers, but it was too late. The comic-book industry was suffering.

Despite the damage inflicted by the Senate subcommittee, Hassler recognized the power of comic books to reach young people, notwithstanding the fact that they were, in Aydin’s words, “nearly as publicly reviled as the cause of racial equality.” In fact, two Black superheroes followed Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story: Steve Perrin’s the Black Phantom appeared in 1964, followed by the Black Panther—created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics—in 1966.

Ten Cents That Changed Lives

The cover of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story depicted Dr. King beside the cover line, “How 50,000 Negroes Found a New Way to End Racial Discrimination.” The comic describes King’s early life, his meeting Coretta and marrying her, the firebombing of their home, the Montgomery bus boycott and the backlash of officials (“Why don’t you people get wise to yourselves and give up this boycott!” says a cop in one panel of the story), and the burning of crosses by the Ku Klux Klan. It also describes Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for independence from the British (“How A Nation Won its Freedom by the Montgomery Method”). It closes with a blueprint of how, when, and why to use nonviolent protest to address social grievances and injustices. It concludes with King ministering to both the reader and Ralph Abernathy, who was fearful of going to jail: “When you are ready, then go ahead, and don’t turn back no matter how hard the way or how long the struggle.”

It made sense that a 16-page comic book would have taken hold of young Black souls risking their lives to bring America to account. They were children and teenagers and college students—they were comic-book readers!—the perfect audience for the heroic story told in those graphic panels.

A $5,000 grant from FOR covered the publication costs, and Dr. King, after making a few factual corrections, officially approved the text, writing to Hassler, “It is certainly an excellent piece of work.... We Negroes, particularly in the South, have a special opportunity to demonstrate the power of love to reconcile racial differences. This book will help to spread the word around.”

Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, during the sit-in strike at one of the local dime-store lunch counters that refused to serve Blacks.

It sold for 10 cents, but without the Comics Code of approval, retailers and newsstands refused to carry it. Instead, FOR field secretaries Abernathy, James Lawson, and Glenn Smiley toured Black churches and schools throughout the South, holding workshops and distributing Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. As Aydin noted, advertisements featuring the cover were mailed to teachers, Black clergy, and community leaders. None of the 2,000 white Southern ministers who received it by mistake were interested, but the intended audiences responded enthusiastically. A Spanish-language edition was eventually created and distributed in Latin America; another edition was sent to South Africa during apartheid, and the comic book was even translated into Arabic and Farsi.

In a later interview with Joseph Hughes for the ComicsAlliance Web site, Lewis explained, “‘The Montgomery Story,’ this comic book that sold for 10 cents, became like our Bible. It was our guide.... It made it simple, it made it plain and it made it very clear.... The power of the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence.”

When he’d first heard about the comic book, Aydin thought to himself, “Well, why doesn’t John Lewis write his own?” He later told Hughes for ComicsAlliance, “I connected those dots that a comic book had a meaningful impact on the early days of the civil-rights movement, and in particular on young people, it just seemed self-evident. If it happened before, why couldn’t it happen again?” Five years later, Lewis did. Inspired by Dr. King’s example, Lewis published March: Book One in 2013, a graphic memoir he’d written, along with Aydin and the artist Nate Powell. It described what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” his historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he led nearly 600 peaceful protesters and was brutally beaten by police. March quickly became a New York Times best-seller. Appearing on The Colbert Report that year, Lewis spoke about how moved he had been by Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. “I read it and I re-read it, and this book inspired me,” he said. “He became my hero, my inspiration, my leader. He inspired me to say no to segregation and racial discrimination.”

The second volume of March, published in 2015, won an Eisner Award at Comic-Con, and March: Book Three, published in 2016, won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. When John Lewis took the stage to accept the award with his co-author and the artist, he began to weep. “This is unreal,” he said. “This is unbelievable.... I grew up in rural Alabama, very, very poor, very few books in our home. And I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old … going down to the public library … and [was] told the library was for whites only.… And to come here, and to receive this award, this honor … it’s too much.”

King (in hat), flanked by his wife, Coretta (right), and John Lewis (far right), leads the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 19, 1965.

That same year, Lewis attended Comic-Con in San Diego to promote his graphic memoir, and on the convention floor he re-created the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as he would the following year and the year after that. He went to some trouble to re-create what he was wearing 50 years ago when he crossed that bridge to Montgomery. He had the backpack, which he filled with an apple, an orange, toothbrush and toothpaste, and two books, just as he had in 1965. According to The New York Times, he found a slightly rumpled vintage raincoat after several trips to thrift shops. Lewis had put together a costume for the 2015 Comic-Con International, cosplaying himself as the 25-year-old who made history.

Nearly 1,000 people joined him as he re-created his historic march. Most were children, some of them third-graders from Mick Rabin’s Oak Park Elementary School in San Diego, who were studying Lewis’s book to learn about the civil-rights movement and its heroes, just as a generation before them had studied Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. The third-graders were more interested in the congressman than they were in Spider-Man and Wonder Woman. They seemed to know who the real Captain America was at Comic-Con.

But it might never have happened were it not for Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, the comic book that changed a generation of Black lives.

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for air maIL