The comic book that changed the world 

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

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

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.

Cordially,

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."

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