Join host Ashley C. Ford in conversation with political aide Andrew Aydin, whose idea for a thrilling new retelling of Congressman John Lewis’ life and role in the Civil Rights struggle is helping a whole new generation of students and activists connect with their past. Dive into the power of writing, of storytelling — and the magic that happens when you shine a light on the ongoing struggle for justice.
Read Episode 3 Full Transcript Below
NARR ASHLEY: I’m Ashley C. Ford and this is Into the Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast about joy and justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.
[Musical cue fades in.]
JOHN LEWIS ARCHIVAL TAPE: My mother, my father, my grandparents, and great grandparents told me, don’t get in trouble, don’t get in the way. But the action of Rosa Parks, the action and words and the leadership of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Reading about Gandhi and Thoreau inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. So it is my hope that when young children pick up this book, it will inspire another generation to find a way to get in the way.
[Piano chords, drum beat, and light vocals fade in and out.]
NARR ASHLEY: John Lewis was a man who knew exactly how to get into good trouble.
He was one of the “big six” leaders who organized the March on Washington in 1963. He was just 23 year old. And two years after, he led a peaceful march that attempted to go from Selma to Montgomery. It ended with marchers being brutally beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
If you know anything about John Lewis and his legacy, even if the details of his decades-long leadership for Georgia have slipped by, you probably know that phrase: “Good trouble.” Sit-ins. Marches. Speaking out. At the anniversary of that Bloody Sunday 50 years later, John Lewis stood on that very same bridge and said, “We kept believing that the truth we stood for would have the final say.”
John Lewis spent the latter part of his career working inside the system. More than 30 years as a Georgia congressman. But towards the end, the man’s public image was taking a hit. He hadn’t supported President Obama when he initially was running, and he got a lot of push back for that. There were alleged improprieties involving his staff and finances. He was being criticized, in a big way, of being out of touch. His political future was definitely in question.
But he had an aide with an out-of-the-box idea. He wanted John Lewis to write a comic book, as a way to connect with a new generation.
The idea would turn into the March trilogy series, illustrated by Nate Powell. It detailed John Lewis’ enormous contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and it would go on to win critical acclaim, teaching young students about our history and rewriting the narrative around John Lewis’ legacy.
But the Congressman was skeptical at first. So the aide, Andrew Aydin, kept pushing.
ANDREW: I kept bringing it up. I did not go quietly into the night on this idea.
NARR ASHLEY: Andrew started out as a low-level aide opening the Congressman’s mail, and ended up a close collaborator — and partner — to the Congressman. The journey of their work together, along with the connection they share, is part of a larger story that highlights the importance of utilizing creativity as a means to educate. Their tale spotlights the super-power ability comics have to bridge the gaps between generations—and how revisiting history in an innovative way can help inspire long-lasting change among newer generations.
Andrew was born in the early ‘80s. He grew up reading comics that his grandmother picked up from the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket.
ANDREW: It’s why I, you know, I, I don’t like roller coasters and I don’t like horror movies and people will say why? And I said, well, my life’s stressful enough as it is. [ASHLEY: Laughs. “Right.”] And I, and I think that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s what comics offered was, you know, you could experience that same sort of stress, that same sort of, um, I don’t know what, if it’s a chemical reaction in your brain [Ashley: It is.] without reliving your traumas.
NARR ASHLEY: When his mother was six months pregnant with him, his father was sent to prison. When he got out a few years later, he left Andrew’s mother to fend for herself, raising their son alone.
ANDREW: I was so angry that my father left and then I was so angry that my mother, as a single mother, was being treated the way she was. I mean, she was a woman at a time when she couldn’t get a bank loan. They were always asking where’s your husband. And it was in seeking answers or solace to that anger that I found comics and comics resonated with me.
ASHLEY: I’m seeing this, this line between your early life, and your love of, of words and how that gets you to a place where you are collaborating with John Lewis. Can you tell me how that trajectory happens for you in your mind?
ANDREW: I guess the short answer is that I tend to try and write my way out of problems. [Ashley: Mmm.] The ability to write and to tell a story was what got me into college, got me through college, got me my first job, got me into Congress.
NARR ASHLEY: Andrew started working in John Lewis’s office in 2007, but he knew about him much longer. He jokes that the Congressman had been his representative since he was three years old. Around the same time that Andrew’s dad left, actually.
Andrew worked for John Lewis for 13 years and during that time, they got really close. Maybe Andrew took it really personally, then, when Representative Lewis was being called out of touch and his political opponents were trying to push him out.
ANDREW: He was being told he was irrelevant. Many of these people that now honor him and praise him and lift him up and want to use his name in all these different ways, many, many of those people were saying he should retire [Ashley: Mmm.]. That he had no place in politics anymore.
ASHLEY: Why did you believe that a comic book would help other people understand his life? What is it about comics that felt like a better vehicle for that narrative?
ANDREW: It was all about capturing that wave. Not just to show them what he had done, but to show them what he was doing at that time.
ASHLEY: How he could connect to young people.
ANDREW: Yeah. I mean, he was always out in the streets, you know, people think about, um, politicians as people behind a big fancy desk with flags behind them. But John Lewis was happier being out, shaking hands.
Everywhere he went, he loved to shake hands. And then when the selfie started happening, he would take every photograph he possibly could. It would take us 45 minutes to walk a quarter mile. [Ashley laughs.]
NARR ASHLEY: John Lewis was always interested in new ideas and new ways to reach people. The comic, though, took five years to write and publish, but finally it was in people’s hands. And the people reacted, eventually sending it to the NY Times bestseller list. But it was Congressman Lewis’ reaction that was most important to Andrew Aydin in that moment. When he read it, it brought him back.
Here he is telling a reporter how he felt reading the book.
JOHN LEWIS ARCHIVAL TAPE: At times it became very emotional for me. I cried to see some of the drawings. To relive what happened during the sit-ins. During the freedom rides. To be reminded of some of the people that were beaten and left bloody. People that didn’t make it. Didn’t live to see the changes that have occurred. It was like reliving what happened.
ANDREW: I’ll never forget the first time we showed him a full copy of, a full illustrated copy of March book one. I ran home to pick it up and I ran back to the office, and I came in and I was holding it in my hands and I didn’t say anything.
And I just, I just handed it to him. And he held it up, and he looked at it, and sort of flipped through it, and then he kissed it! And he looked at me and he said, it’s like it always existed and you just pulled it down from the heavens.
NARR ASHLEY: Now that the book existed, there was the matter of getting it out there far and wide.
ANDREW: Part of my pitch, when I was trying to get publishers, was that if you could combine the media attention that John Lewis could get for doing something unique and special with a literarily, significant graphic novel, you could have an explosive combination. [Ashley: Mmhmm.] And part of that was the idea that you could bring someone to Comic-Con and experience more media per square foot essentially than anywhere else in the world. [Ashley: Yes.]
No one knew if it was gonna work. He’s the first member of Congress ever to go to Comic-Con and you don’t know, are the press gonna show up, what’s going to happen?
NARR ASHLEY: If you’ve ever been to Comic Con, you know the scene.
[Musical cue of upbeat drums and electronics cue in.]
NARR ASHLEY: A convention center. Thousands of people milling around, many of them cosplaying their favorite heroes and villains. It’s the kind of place where people dressed as Wolverine take photos with Trekkies. Hollywood execs normally show up to announce the next big superhero films. Basically, ComicCon is not the kind of place you’d expect to see a 76-year old civil rights activist in a suit.
ANDREW: He gets in Friday night, cause he had votes on Friday, the panel Saturday morning at 10:30am, room 23, ABC. I’ll never forget that. And we’re walking down this long hallway on the top floor of the San Diego convention center. And we start to see a line and we’re looking at it and we’re going, oh, okay. I wonder whose line that is. And then we get closer and closer and closer to the room and we realized it’s his line. That all these people have come out for him.
None of us really knew, like we were just beginning to be able to talk about this book in an effective way, right? [Ashley: Right.] Like we were talking about it in terms of, um, non-violence and what we’re trying to do to inspire young people. And when we get to the line, there are a thousand people stretching all the way down the convention center.
ANDREW: And so then we sit for the signing and the line gets cut by the fire marshall. He says, I’m sorry, this is too long, you can’t have any more people in this line. Like if you weren’t in that line, when it started, you got cut.
So then we were like, Congressman, we’re going to have to schedule new signings later, et cetera, et cetera. And we sat and he refused to move until he signed every single person’s book in that line. And it must have been three and a half hours.
NARR ASHLEY: In an age of elected officials barely making time to meet with their constituents, Congressman Lewis was different. When it came to scheduling travel to places like the airport, his staff would buffer in extra time just to ensure he would be able to greet any of the public who wanted to speak with him or take pictures with him. Even signing March books at the airport bookstores.
So his approach to Comic-Con book signings was similar. The Congressman was prepared to do what he could to get the March series into the hands of the public.
ANDREW: You know at the time there was something called the nine word problem. Most students graduating from high school knew only nine words about the Civil Rights movement: ‘Rosa Parks,’ ‘Martin Luther King.’ And ‘I have a dream.’ And there wasn’t a resource. And we were talking about this in the context of the fact that we believe that the Civil Rights movement had been systematically and deliberately excluded from curriculums and that this was an opportunity to fix it.
NARR ASHLEY: There’ll be more after the break.
ANDREW: I think sometimes we, you know, uh, history repeats itself, but I don’t think history repeats itself. I think it rhymes.
When we say history repeats itself, we make it harder for people to, to understand that difference, between the fact that they’re still the same battle lines, but it’s a different battlefield.
And so if we can understand the fundamental principles on that battlefield, right? Like the tactics, the tools that are available, then we’re able to fight it in this moment that we’re facing.
NARR ASHLEY: The technology may have changed since Congressman Lewis’s days, but knowledge is always power.
[Electronic music with cymbals and a shaker beat cues in.]
Some people might think comic books are an outside-the-box idea, and even people in the office teased Andrew for it. But there was at least one voice in support of the idea.
ANDREW: Well, at the time I was being mocked, rather viciously for going to a comic book convention. And the Congressman said, you know, don’t laugh. There was a comic book during the movement and it was deeply influential. And that was the first time he told me about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
NARR ASHLEY: This particular comic was a book in 1957 that was way ahead of its time. It was a 16-page primer for nonviolent action and inspired movements in several countries. There was even a Spanish translation that circulated throughout South America. That comic inspired some of the earliest acts of civil disobedience in the movement. And Andrew and John Lewis wanted to accomplish the same with March.
Here was an opportunity to remix history, making it rhyme for a new generation.
ANDREW: It had sort of become our roadmap. We were trying to do the same thing with March. To, to give these talks and have everyone walk away with the copy of the book, learn the lessons and then hopefully ignite, sort of, a nonviolent revolution essentially.
NARR ASHLEY: And it did spark some pretty bold action, right across from the White House. Andrew retells it as if he’s remembering it in real time.
ANDREW: John Lewis witnessed it himself. He goes to Black Lives Matter Plaza and he looks at Black Lives Matter written along the street, just as March was written along the cover on highway 80 of March book three, right? The parallels are just profound.
NARR ASHLEY: And we’ve seen the response to that, too. A backlash in the form of state and local policies intended to oversee current teacher curriculums and push back on historical truths from different perspectives. School districts are being sued by conservative parent groups and legislators for the books on their library shelves, and school board meetings are turning into shouting matches. They have hotlines where people can report their teachers for teaching so-called “negative” versions of history. By which they mean, accurate portrayals of the Civil Rights movement. Of Jim Crow. Of nonviolent protest.
It’s clear that what’s happening around education is driving a lot of people to exercise their political agendas, attempting to erase legacies of leaders like John Lewis in the process.
March hasn’t been explicitly banned, but the whispers are there.
ANDREW: They are very conscious of the fact that if they directly attack March, the backlash will be uncontrollable.
They’re afraid to take on March. So they’re doing it through these, this legislation that does everything, but name March, right. When it says, ‘We’re going to ban books that teach young people how to protest.’ What book in schools does a better job of teaching young people how to protest? Like, who else are you talking about?
ASHLEY: There’s a lot of fear, you know. I’m literally from Indiana, okay, so the critical race theory conversations are happening, baby.
ANDREW: I think, there, it’s, it’s… In some ways the Congressman would be proud, in a twisted sort of way, that the state of Texas and other states are actually having to make laws that would ban the teaching of March, because it is so widely taught there. They realize how powerful of a force it is, right?
This is the first generation of students who grew up with March in their classroom. The Congressman would call them the March generation? Right. So you teach them their power through John Lewis, his story about organizing, about nonviolent civil disobedience and how to put pressure on elected officials.
That is a dangerous, dangerous talent.
[Light jazz notes cue in.]
NARR ASHLEY: A lot of people are carrying around larger than life ideas waiting to be unlocked with the right opportunity. It’s often a matter of patience, persistence, and timing. John Lewis was one of the people who supported Andrew in this way, who let his big ideas seed and grow. It’s why, when Ben & Jerry’s reached out to the two of them to collaborate on a mural at the company’s Vermont factory, an even bigger idea unraveled.
ANDREW: If you’re going to give me a 35-by-5 foot space to tell a story, I want to use every inch of that. So if you look at the installation, each one of the different chapters, and there’s six, right? Or seven: Young John Lewis’. Sit-in John Lewis. Freedom ride, John Lewis. March on Washington John Lewis. Freedom summer John Lewis. And Selma John Lewis, right?
And then at the end, it becomes a call to action, right? The idea that it is unfinished, that it must be carried on.
NARR ASHLEY: The mural’s purpose was to push people to the polls. The Congressmen believed that your vote is precious. On the mural, he’s quoted as saying, “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”
[Light piano notes cue in.]
NARR ASHLEY: John Lewis passed away before he could see the final project. But he did see the early sketches.
ANDREW: He was excited, and I was always apologizing. Like, Congressman, it’s really rough right now. And he was like, no, I can see it. I understand what you’re trying to do.
From time to time, the Congressman would say without art, without artists, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings. He talked about how art and artists create the climate and the environment for change. A field does not just grow. It has to be sewn. It has to be fertilized. It has to be tended.
And that’s what art and artists do.
ASHLEY: Is there any advice you would have for other young people who think to themselves, I want to use my art to impact conversation and policy?
ANDREW: I would say what the Congressman often said to me, while we were working on these things, is that you’ve got to pace yourself. He would say [in exaggerated voice] ‘Pace yourself, young man, pace yourself.’ If you don’t rest, then you can’t be successful on the long March.
NARR ASHLEY: One thing the Congressman did was keep going.
ANDREW: I hope people understand that the reason John Lewis is so revered today is because he didn’t give up when he was in his late twenties and pushed out of the movement. He didn’t give up when he was in his 30s and 40s and lost on his elections. And he didn’t give up when he nearly lost his seat in Congress. He reinvented himself. He found new ways to achieve his goals.
And more importantly than anything, he listened to young people. And so I hope the young people who are speaking up don’t get discouraged. And that those of us who are not so young anymore, remember that we need to listen to young people because they see the future better than we do.
NARR ASHLEY: And by the way, if you want to see the mural that Andrew worked on, it’s still on view in person at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury Vermont. Or you can see it digitally at benjerry.com.
[Electronic beat, drums, and cymbals cue in.]
John Lewis’s legacy lives on in several places, and so does the battle for voting rights. In that fight, Ben & Jerry’s has continued to support ongoing initiatives to both defend and expand voting rights. That includes Amendment 4 in Florida and supporting the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
With elections on the horizon, if you want to learn more and get engaged in helping to preserve the integrity of our elections and the democratic process, visit benjerry.com/vra. and take action.
Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative.
The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Creative Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan and additional assistance from Gaby Grossman.
The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. This episode was written by Ken Miles with help from Gary Swaby. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann, assisted by Jean-Claude Canal. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.
The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.
I’m Ashley C Ford. Thank you for listening.