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

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.

Cordially,

Alfred Hassler

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.

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