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3 pieces of pop culture that explain John Lewis’s legacy

A pop culture primer on a lifetime of activism.

John Lewis appears on an outdoor movie screen, his face framed by dark rows of parked cars, and a sky purple and red from the setting sun.
Lewis in the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” at a July 2020 screening of the film in New York City.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Former Rep. John Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, was one of the superheroes of the American social justice movement. And like all superheroes, John Lewis has been the subject of a multitude of pop culture stories on his origin, his work, and his legacy.

Lewis told some of those stories himself. Together with his staffer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, he shared his life story in the form of the three-volume graphic memoir March.

But he has also been the subject of works interrogating his history and the injustices he fought against that offer insight into Lewis’s accomplishments, and that can deepen our understanding of civil rights activism today. Lewis fought tirelessly against segregation and voter suppression, and that work is chronicled in movies like Ava DuVernay’s Selma and the recent documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble.

Here’s a pop culture primer to understanding John Lewis’s legacy, the work he built his life around, and how that work continues today.

Selma introduces us to a pivotal moment in Lewis’s career as an activist

Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma is not centered on John Lewis. It’s about Martin Luther King, Jr., and it climaxes with a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. The march would be met with violent police resistance in a police riot known as Bloody Sunday, and it ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But any account of that march would be incomplete without mentioning John Lewis, who was one of the youngest of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights leaders. It was Lewis who, along with Hosea Williams, led marchers across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be met by armed state troopers. And it was Lewis whose skull was cracked in the ensuing police riot. He would bear the scars of that attack for the rest of his life.

Selma includes the march across the bridge. But it also delves into Lewis’s relationship with King, and the ways in which that relationship makes both titanic figures seem more human. In 2014, Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff wrote of Selma:

The thought of a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., immediately brings to mind sweeping vistas and sing-alongs of “We Shall Overcome.” But from everything I’ve described so far, it should be clear that DuVernay has far more interest in undercutting those preconceptions than anything else.

She almost had to undercut them. At just $20 million, Selma isn’t blessed with the kind of budget that can allow for massive scope, and it fills its cast not with recognizable names (save producer Oprah Winfrey in a small supporting role) but, instead, with some of the world’s best character actors.

Wilkinson’s Johnson is a man struggling to overcome his own prejudices and largely succeeding, while Tim Roth turns George Wallace into a figure who would inspire comic relief if the things he believed weren’t so loathsome. And as Hosea Williams and John Lewis, respectively, Wendell Pierce and Stephan James give King moments of pause and reflection he desperately needs.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is an overview of a lifetime of working for justice and equality

“Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble,” is the mantra that John Lewis repeated over and over again throughout his career, both to explain his own activism and to push others into theirs. And Good Trouble, out this year, is an overview of just how exactly Lewis got into that necessary trouble. Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson reviewed the documentary earlier this month:

As documentaries of this sort tend to do, John Lewis: Good Trouble glosses over the details of some of the more interesting and controversial parts of Lewis’s career, like his 1986 run for Congress against Julian Bond, which reveals some important ideological and tactical disagreements among Black voters in Georgia and in the US at large. Lewis is an important enough figure to history to merit a more revealing portrait in the future. But John Lewis: Good Trouble is still a valuable and interesting introduction to how and why people fought in the civil rights movement and are still fighting today, and a noble tribute to a man who’s been there for all of it.

With March, a superhero gets his origin story

John Lewis in cosplay as his younger self as he promotes his memoir March at the 2015 Comic-Con in San Diego.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

March is Lewis’s graphic memoir, told in three volumes. It covers everything from his childhood baptizing the chickens his sharecropper parents tended, to his work in the anti-segregation sit-ins and marches of the ’60s, to his more recent career in Congress. When I covered the trilogy in 2016, I wrote:

Lewis went to college in Nashville, where he began to attend Jim Lawson’s workshops on nonviolent protest. In March, the workshops look harrowing: Participants alternate screaming racial slurs and threats at one another, their shadowy faces dominating the panels of each page as spittle flies from their mouths. “We tried to dehumanize each other,” says the caption. “We needed to see how each of us would react under stress.”

But the workshops also used gentler tactics. Participants studied a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which outlines King’s strategy of nonviolent action as a tool for desegregation. It was his experience with this comic, Lewis says, that led him to agree to write his own story as a graphic novel when Aydin approached him with the idea — and he hopes that March, like The Montgomery Story, will teach a new generation about the power of nonviolent protest.

As part of Lewis’s aspirations for March, he attended Comic-Con in cosplay as his younger self, including the trench coat and backpack he wore during Bloody Sunday. Then he led a group of young attendees in a march for justice up and down the convention floor.

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