Monday, January 18, 2010

Library's Keep MLK's Crucial Comic Book

The Comic Book That Changed A Nation.

"The comic book [is] the marijuana of the nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the home, the curse of the kids and a threat to the future."
John Mason Brown. (American literary critic, 1900-1969)

In December of 1957 a comic book was published that really did threaten the future--at least the future of American segregationists. Carefully preserved in the special collections of several academic libraries, such as The Smithsonian Institution, Morehouse College, and Stanford University, The Montgomery Story, a 14-page comic book is, credited with being one of the most influential teaching tools ever produced for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Comic Book's Depiction Of Press Attention For The Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the comic book bears the name of neither author nor illustrator. It tells the story of the successful 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Even more importantly for the future of the Civil Rights Movement, the little comic book that could outlines in a mere two pages the technique of passive resistance used by Gandhi to free India from British rule. The FOR is first and foremost a pacifist organization, and its national field secretary, Glenn E. Smiley, advised Dr. King on the use of Gandhian nonviolence. In a letter to a friend in 1956, Smiley wrote of his hopes for King: "If he can really be won to a faith in nonviolence there is no end to what he can do. Soon he will be able to direct the movement by the sheer force of being the symbol of resistance."

Gandhi's Tactic Of Passive Resistance Graphically Rendered.

By succinctly outlining a strategy for peaceful civil disobedience, the comic became a primer for the students who launched the sit-in movement. On February 1, 1960 four black students sat at the counter of a Woolworth's drugstore in Greensboro, NC, and waited to be served. The students knew that only whites were allowed to sit on the stools at the counter--blacks were to eat standing up. The four men remained, unserved, at the counter until the drugstore closed. The next day the four returned--along with 27 others--to continue the protest. The lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, NC attracted nationwide media coverage at a time when civil rights activities had slipped from the headlines. A whole new series of peaceful protests, and a desperately needed publicity boost, were the direct result of college kids reading The Montgomery Story, and putting the words (and the pictures) into practice.

King Preaches Peace In The Face Of Hate.

The use of a comic book as a text for the fight against Jim Crow was inspired on many levels. Comics are cheap to produce; lightweight; small in size; easy to disguise, hide or smuggle; and highly disposable. Joe Wos, founder and director of Pittsburgh's ToonSeum, spoke of the dangers of possessing a copy of The Montgomery Story in the segregated South of the 1960's: "People were told to read it, memorize it, and destroy it because if they were caught with it, they could be killed." It is estimated that 250,000 copies of the comic were printed, but few copies have survived intact.

Klan Violence Comic Book Style.

The use of a simple, graphic format to teach young freedom fighters the techniques Dr. King used in Montgomery was a stroke of genius. Many of the foot soldiers in the army for civil rights were teenagers who had been educated at sub-standard, separate but unequal schools. Those unable to read well can still learn quickly from the pictures in a comic book, and reluctant readers can be lured in by an eye-caching illustration. The Montgomery Story was written to inspire these young victims of segregation to nonviolent action, and to warn them of the consequences. The comic is daringly honest in depicting the Ku Klux Klan's use of cross burnings and bombings to terrorize those seeking equal rights. And time and again the tremendous effort necessary to truly "love your enemies" in the face of hatred and violence is underscored in both words and pictures.

The Montgomery Story In Four Languages.

The Montgomery Story's depiction of the monumental sacrifices, and the great rewards, that await those who seek to end oppression by nonviolent means still resonates around the world. The comic book was reprinted in Spanish shortly after its publication in English, but as recently as 2008 it was translated into Arabic, Farsi, and Vietnamese. The world still heeds these words from Martin Luther King: "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." Sometimes, amazingly, that struggle for change begins with reading a comic book.

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