Cover Story: The comic book that changed the world
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story's vital role in the Civil Rights Movement
I first heard about the civil rights-era comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story from Congressman John Lewis in the spring of 2008. I had been working for him less than a year when I was driving him to an event and we got to talking about comic books. 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." I was captivated. Could a comic book have played a role in the Civil Rights Movement? If so, how? Could we do it again?
As I came to learn, the story of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story is tightly tied to the Civil Rights Movement's early days. The true breadth of its history, of who made the comic book and what role it played, has been largely overlooked. Yet, it is a powerful example of an unconventional idea serving as an extraordinary source of inspiration.
The comic tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which successfully helped integrate that city's public transportation. To say that the idea to produce a comic book about civil rights in 1957 was a radical idea would be to understate the overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward comic books at the time. Just three years prior, near the height of McCarthyism, growing anti-comic book sentiment came to a head when the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency conducted an investigation and held hearings about the negative effects of comic books on America's youth.
So how did a comic book like Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story come to be made? And in what ways did this comic book play an influential role in the Civil Rights Movement? Well, to answer these questions, I guess you have to start at the beginning.
Comic books, as we know them, came into existence in the 1930s, and by the time America entered the Second World War they were big business. Young people devoured them. As the Allied powers claimed victory, Captain America and his colleagues were selling tens of millions of issues per week. For every comic book sold, five to 10 young people were reading it. Comic books reached more people than any other medium in America. Columbia University professor of journalism David Hajdu estimates in his book The Ten-Cent Plague that their average monthly circulation jumped from close to 17 million copies in 1940 to 68 million in 1953.
In the postwar years, as the world struggled to rebuild and cope with the arrival of the atomic age, young people's taste in comic books took a dark turn toward crime, horror, and lust. Tensions building throughout the war years exploded into comics as the world sifted through the consequences of global conflict. Critics emerged, lambasting comic books as a cause of increasing juvenile delinquency. Churches warned of their dangers. Schools and libraries organized burnings where young people were urged to throw their comic books onto bonfires to purge the lingering scourge from their homes.
Congress, never one to miss a bandwagon, held its hearings on the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Critics such as psychiatrist Fredric Wertham testified to the negative impact of comic books on young people and the corrupting influence of morally ambiguous violence, horror, and sex. The hearings created a firestorm of publicity and public pressure that devastated the comic book industry, despite no significant new legislation being passed.
In an effort to contain the damage, comic book publishers created a self-regulating body that would administer the "Comics Code." Its stamp of approval helped quell the fears of nervous distributors and retailers fearing backlash from potentially controversial content. The Comics Code did little to change public attitudes, and the comic book industry withered.
At the same time in Montgomery, Ala., a movement was born. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move from her seat on a Montgomery Area Transit bus. Within hours, a response that would change the course of American history began to take shape.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for more than a year before Montgomery city officials yielded and allowed bus passengers to sit freely regardless of race. The desegregation of Montgomery city buses was a victory, but, perhaps more importantly, from it emerged new leaders and new alliances that would shape the political dialogue on civil rights and racial equality in the coming decade. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which organized carpools, negotiated with Montgomery city leaders, and coordinated legal challenges with the NAACP during the boycott, was led by a charismatic young preacher from Atlanta: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the boycott, King developed a relationship with Rev. Glenn Smiley, a white Methodist minister from Texas, who was then serving as a field secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). As participation in the boycott grew, Smiley helped organize nonviolence training, supplying materials and publications for the MIA efforts. Ultimately, King and Smiley became so close that it was Smiley who sat next to King aboard the first desegregated Montgomery city bus on Dec. 21, 1956.
Following the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, FOR sought to capitalize on its success and spread the "Montgomery Story" as an example of the potential of nonviolent action for advancing social change. Relying on its experience publishing literature, FOR turned to a format nearly as publicly reviled as the cause of racial equality: comic books. At the center of this effort was FOR's Director of Publications, Alfred Hassler.
Hassler had already written numerous anti-war books and articles, including a book about his time in prison as a conscientious objector during World War II. But in 1956, Hassler had the idea to write a comic book.
"It was actually quite funny," Hassler's daughter, Laura, wrote to me, "that my father thought of producing a comic book in the '50s. Alfred was a great lover of literature, good writing and subtlety. In the era of Superman, Wonder Woman and Archie and Veronica, he was definitely not a comic book fan! In fact, we were not allowed to have them as children, and I can remember going to a friend's house on weekends, lying around in the 'shack' outside their house, reading her comic books!"
Laura believes it was her father's continued fascination with new trends and finding creative ways to reach broader audiences that drove his work toward comic books. After all, if the comic book hearings of 1954 had unquestioningly affirmed one fact, it was that comic books have the potential to exert great influence.
Richard Deats, FOR's Director of Communications in the 1990s, laid out FOR's motivation and purpose behind the comic in a 1997 letter, saying, "The comic book was originally intended to convey to semiliterate persons the story of nonviolence and its effectiveness as seen in the Montgomery movement. The medium of the highly popular comic book was believed to be the best way to reach masses of exploited African-Americans."
Hassler, who had never before written or produced a comic book, brought his idea to life with the help of a grant from the Fund for the Republic, a nonprofit institution advocating for civil rights and civil liberties. In order to convince the organization's board that his idea was feasible, he had to produce a script, art samples, and demonstrate community interest.
Hassler was referred to a man named Benton Resnik who became the crucial creative link between FOR and the comic publishing world. Together, Resnik and Hassler collaborated to bring the comic book to life. Many of Hassler's letters are archived at Swarthmore College's Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, including those with Resnik. The earliest letter is dated March 12, 1957. At the top of the page in bold letters, it says, "GRAPHIC INFORMATION SERVICES." The address listed below is 17 East 45th Street, New York 17, N.Y. The letter reads:
Dear Mr. Hassler,
I am enclosing herewith a suggested story treatment for the proposed booklet, THE MONTGOMERY STORY. I would appreciate your comments.
Once the treatment is accepted by you, we would then proceed to two or three pages of script and art work for presentation to the Fund.
Benton, J. Resnik
Resnik, then the general manager of Toby Press, is listed in the indicia of several comic books, including The Black Knight and Monty Hall of the U.S. Marines. Those titles are also listed among those reviewed by the Committee on Evaluation of Comic Books. Both titles received a "C," or "objectionable," rating, deeming them not "safe for use by children and young people." Toby Press had gone out of business in 1955, a casualty of comics hysteria, and Resnik, like many others working in the comic book industry then, had to find new ways to make a living.
On May 2, 1957, Hassler responded to Resnik's letter.
"The more I have looked at the text of the script for the comic book the more I feel that, while the utilization is alright, the script is too heavy and literary for our purposes. You will recall that what we have in mind is getting to people who have relatively little education."
Hassler appealed to Resnik, "I would assume that you have considerable experience with this problem and I would be glad to have any ideas you have on the subject." Hassler included his revisions to the script and a note expressing his uncertainty over funding from the Fund for the Republic, writing, "I really feel that this initial page has to be as near right as we can get it if we hope to get any substantial favorable response."
By early summer 1957, a painted cover draft was created with King prominently featured, indicating a shift toward emphasizing his role in the growing Civil Rights Movement. His name was added to the title. The cover was featured in an advertisement that Hassler mailed primarily to religious leaders, schoolteachers, and community leaders.
A mislabeled list sent 2,000 mailings to white Southern ministers rather than the black clergy for which they were intended. Unsurprisingly, the response was negative. But the mailings that reached their intended recipients, according to Hassler, were met with great enthusiasm. Hassler expected initial orders of at least 50,000 copies. The MIA, A. Philip Randolph, Rev. Will Campbell, and others each expressed a desire to purchase the comic book.
By September 1957, assurances were given by Ed Reed of the Fund for the Republic that a $5,000 grant would be proposed to the organization's board of directors. In a letter to Reed, dated Sept. 12, Hassler thanks him for his support, saying, "we feel here that it is imperative that the comic book be produced, and that it be produced without delay. I personally feel sure that the entire edition will be sold out within a fairly short time and that reprints will probably be necessary."
FOR quickly approved the grant, and on Sept. 24, Hassler dispatched a letter informing King:
Dear Dr. King
I am sure you will be happy to know that after long delays the Fund for the Republic has approved the grant to us that will make it possible to publish the Comic Book about which I spoke to you during the summer. We will be going ahead with this as rapidly as the Al Capp Oragnization can move, and as we do so, I would like to have you look at the script before it is put in final shape just to be sure it has your approval.
Acting Executive Secretary
Three weeks later, Hassler dispatched a complete draft script to King. Several "personal emergencies" including the birth of his first son, Martin Luther King III, delayed his response for which he apologized in an Oct. 28 letter, and offered adulation as well as a few corrections:
"I have read the script very scrutinizingly, and frankly there is hardly anything I could add or subtract. It is certainly an excellent piece of work. I might raise one or two questions concerning factual points. Of course, these points might not necessarily be important because at times you must stray away from the exact facts to create the drama of the situation. However, I will raise them with you. On page 16, box 1 you state that E.D. Nixon was the first person to be indicted. I don't think this is actually the case. The Grand Jury indicted everybody simultaneously. Neither was Nixon the first to be arrested. Ralph Abernathy was the first to be arrested. On page 20, box 5 you quote the Negro woman who was slapped: 'I could really wallop her-she is smaller than me.' Actually, there was a white man who slapped the Negro woman. In order to be more in line with the facts it would be better to say: 'I could really wallop him-he's smaller than me!'"
The first copies of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story were distributed in December of 1957. King's proposed changes were among those included in the final text.
There were other changes to the final edition as well. The cover differed slightly from the one featured in the advertisement. King's image no longer gazed directly at the reader, instead looking away off into the distance. A ray of light shines from above as if cast by a divine hand.
Nowhere in the comic book is there a signature or credit to an artist or writer. Instead, it simply features a reference to FOR on the back cover. It's possible to infer from the correspondence that Hassler and Resnik collaborated on the script, with a little help from King. Yet, the artist remains unknown, perhaps a casualty of history or simply an unsung hero yet to take a bow.
Publishing a comic book like Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was remarkable in and of itself considering the times and the popular attitudes toward comic books. But perhaps the more remarkable story is that of what happened after the comic book was published. There were no specialty shops for direct distribution. Most retailers had also come to rely on the Comics Code approval. As a result, few newsstand shelves carried the unapproved FOR comic book.
Instead, FOR embarked on an ambitious journey across the South to spread the message of nonviolence using the example of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Pacifist and Christian publications such as The Southern Patriot, Four Lights, National Guardian, Serving Mankind, and Peace News ran articles touting the comic book's release and providing sales information. King issued a statement, included with some copies, endorsing the comic book and explaining his hopes that it would be widely read by both black and white communities.
"We Negroes, particularly in the South," wrote King, "have a special opportunity to demonstrate the power of love to reconcile racial differences. This book will help to spread the word around."
The most successful tactic was the personal dissemination of the comic book. FOR field secretaries Rev. Jim Lawson, Abernathy, and Smiley embarked on a tour visiting black churches and schools in eight Southern states. They held nonviolence workshops and seminars where they distributed Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as well as the FOR pamphlet "How to Practice Nonviolence."
Lawson was quick to point out to me that the comic book was one tool among many that he and FOR were using in their work to spread the message of nonviolence. "The comic book was in the context of a larger curriculum as I taught it around the South and used it," he said. "Part of its value was that it gave people a brief story of a very effective nonviolent campaign, something that they could refer to and memorize and study. And it also gave them some of the ways in which Martin King had struggled and taught nonviolence. I would have the comic books available free of charge but then I would discuss the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the purpose of insisting it was a major illustration of the power of nonviolence action, of nonviolent politics."
It worked. By 1958, sit-ins were taking place in Wichita, Kan., where Lawson led workshops and distributed the comic book during his tour. The protests didn't receive much media attention, but they were just the beginning. As the last leaves fell and the season turned from fall to winter in 1959, students in Nashville participating in Lawson's workshops at First Baptist Church began preparing their own sit-in campaign. In November and December of 1959, students trained by Lawson, including Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Diane Nash led test sit-ins that focused on establishing the fact of discriminatory business practices and avoided direct confrontation.
In January of 1960, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story found its way to Greensboro, N.C., and into the hands of 18-year-old North Carolina A&T State University student Ezell Blair. After reading it, Blair decided to show it to his roommate, Joseph McNeil. Blair and McNeil had been in contact with local civil rights activists but, as the story goes, it was when McNeil finished reading the comic book that he made a decision of historic importance, declaring, "Let's have a boycott!"
On Feb. 1, 1960, Blair, McNeil, and two other local students staged a sit-in at Woolworths, becoming forever known as the Greensboro Four. The next day, the front page of the Greensboro Record featured a quote from Blair who "declared that Negro adults 'have been complacent and fearful. It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation ... and we decided to start here.'"
The story of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story did not end with the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. In fact, the full story of its influence probably has yet to unfold. Shortly after the comic book was first published in the United States, FOR published a Spanish-language edition that was printed and distributed throughout Latin America. The art was redrawn but the cover remained the same. Over the next two decades, other translated editions appeared alongside nonviolent movements.
The comic book was distributed in South Africa among those resisting the apartheid regime. A young missionary named Jerome Nkosi read the comic book in Johannesburg, where he was working as a missionary. In July of 1959, Nkosi wrote a letter to FOR describing the inspiration he felt after reading the comic book.
"I feel all the more challenged to do what I can to apply the suggestions outlined in the closing pages to our local situations which, as you well know, are far from being commendable," he said. The comic book was eventually banned in South Africa for its allegedly incendiary content.
In 2006, a young woman named Dalia Ziada rediscovered the comic book and began the process of creating an Arabic and Farsi translation. Ziada learned of King's writings while attending a civil rights conference in Cairo. "It was amazing and really moved me," Ziada told me. "Since then, I decided to use nonviolent strategies in everything in my life, starting from my personal life to major political participation and civil problems, and it worked perfectly!"
Ziada faced some roadblocks when trying to import the comic book to Egypt. "Pushing for democracy and inciting young people to attain civil rights was taboo in Egypt, but thanks to the nonviolent technique of negotiation and pressure, I got the approval — which was impossible once," she said. Ziada invited the security officer who blocked publication to share a cup of coffee and discuss the book. They read through it page by page to address his concerns. "Strangely, he liked it and helped me edit the sentences that might cause trouble!" Ziada recalled. He granted permission to print it. He then asked, "Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?"
To me, the history of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was more than a series of facts and anecdotes to be collected and recounted; it was a call to action. Our time on this planet is short, and it is what we do with that time that defines our societies' futures. Each and every one of us has something unique to contribute, if we are willing to do the work. By luck, by chance, or perhaps by the spirit of history, I found myself working for Lewis, learning his story of how America was changed forever. When I learned about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, I couldn't help myself, I had to ask Lewis if he would write the next chapter and bring his story of the Civil Rights Movement to comics. His answer changed my life.
It's been five years now. The first volume of what is now a trilogy of graphic novels titled March will be released nationwide on Aug. 13. It's been an unbelievable journey to reach this point. There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of late nights, working weekends, and missed outings with friends and family. But I have no regrets. I know this is something I had to do, not just for myself, but for all of those left out and left behind. Just as Blair believed in his own time, I believe too many adults have become complacent and fearful.
The American Dream is fundamentally rooted in the principle that our nation is a level playing field. Yet, more and more I have come to believe that here in America, the playing field is no longer level, if it ever was. If we are to bring balance, and thereby strengthen America's core, the only viable path is that of nonviolence. Moreover, this is not just a struggle we face here at home, but one that is also taking place across the globe. I believe it is time for young people the world over to start making some noise, to start pushing and pulling so that the society we leave to our children is a better place for everyone than the one left to us.
It is my hope, my dream, that one day some young little girl or boy will pick up one of these graphic novels, read it, and make the decision to speak up and speak out, to make his or her voice heard, and maybe, just maybe, change our world for the better.
This article was adapted for Creative Loafing from Aydin's 2012 Georgetown University master's thesis.