Opinion Writers

Before Black Panther, there was John Lewis

  • Echo from historic struggle: a boy dressed like the civil rights activist waits for Lewis outside the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma last weekend (Photograph by Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
  • John Lewis wearing his distinctive tan trench coat and backpack during the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965

This past weekend was the Faith and Politics Institute’s annual civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery with John Lewis, the Democratic representative of Georgia. Because I went last year, I didn’t think there could possibly be more that I could say about the extraordinary privilege and humbling experience of walking with the giants of the Civil Rights Movement. And then we arrived for Sunday service at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama.

When the bus pulled up to the historic church where the Selma-to-Montgomery marches stepped off in 1965, you couldn’t help but notice him. A fresh-faced little white boy wearing glasses, a tan trench coat and a backpack standing under a tree with another, more casually dressed boy and a knot of adults. It wasn’t until I saw the little guy after the more than three-hour church service that it hit me. The curious kid — the grandson of Dick Gephardt, the former Democratic representative of Missouri — was dressed the way a young John Lewis was on March 7, 1965.

That morning, Lewis and about 600 others set off to march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, to demand their voting rights. He was wearing a tan trench coat and a backpack, which held his provisions for what he thought would be a certain night or a few days in jail: a book, an apple, an orange and toothbrush and toothpaste. Instead of being arrested, Lewis and countless others were mercilessly beaten by Alabama law-enforcement officers while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The world was literally watching as the savagery that became known as “Bloody Sunday” was televised. The harrowing images and accompanying screams of the innocents sickened the nation and sparked action.

Their success, bought with blood and sacrifice, is one of the examples I thought of when former attorney-general Eric Holder added context to the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” metaphor at the “Cape Up” live event last week. “That only happens when people put their hand on that arc and pull it towards justice,” Holder told me.

Lewis and the other foot soldiers for justice — ordinary people who had little more than courage and conviction — did just that. They pulled that arc, changed history and moved the country to a better place.

Lewis depicts this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement in a graphic novel trilogy titled March. The comic book-style rendering of the Civil Rights Movement became a surprise hit, winning a National Book Award in 2016. The books are beautifully done. But the power of the man and his story is not just in those beautifully done pages. It was standing in the brilliant sun on a Sunday afternoon in Alabama.

Perhaps I have black superheroes on the brain because of Black Panther, Marvel’s mega-blockbuster movie. On its merits, it is a spectacular film. That it features a black cast and a story that revolves around an advanced and wealthy African nation whose leader is a superhero has African-Americans — and everyone else, it seems — screaming “Wakanda for ever!”

But as prideful as that fictional story made me, nothing beats real life.

Fifty-three years ago, Lewis was a mild-mannered student of non-violence who was beaten and arrested more times than any of us could or would ever endure. He was as reviled by whites then as he is revered today by all Americans. And nothing captured that reverence more than the attached image above. Look how the boy is standing, eagerly awaiting Lewis’s emergence from the church.

I find so much hope in this photograph. That a little white boy would be proud to dress up like John Lewis shows you how far the arc of the moral universe has bent. It shows that John Lewis is the black superhero we’ve had all along.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Washington Post editorial board and writes for the PostPartisan blog