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The comic book that changed the world 

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story's vital role in the Civil Rights Movement

click to enlarge COURTESY OF FELLOWSHIP OF RECONCILIATION / FORUSA.ORG
  • Courtesy of Fellowship of Reconciliation / forusa.org

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.

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