The Film & Media Archive holds a copy of the very rare comic, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Gathered by filmmaker Henry Hampton for the series Eyes on the Prize, it is part of the remarkable legacy of the civil rights movement that continues to have an impact today.
Printed in eye-catching colors and meant for readers of all ages the comic was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian organization, in 1957. The story of the comic began earlier in 1955 but continued far beyond that as it was translated into numerous languages including Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi. The comic book and the philosophy of nonviolence employed by Dr. King during the civil rights movement has been distributed and employed in South America, South Africa and more recently in Egypt during the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011.
Mixing fictional and real characters it tells the story of the bus boycott in a graphic format. According to an article published by Booker Rising,
Just five months after the start of the bus boycott, a pacifist organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation began work on the comic book. It hoped that the comic-book medium would appeal to children and adults, white and black Americans. The organization collaborated with the Al Capp Organization (creators of “L’il Abner”) on the artwork. Blacklisted comic writer Benton Resnick, who had testified at the Senate Comic Book Hearings of 1954, was hired to write the script. Though it was originally intended to focus only on King and what was thought at first to be a short-term boycott, the final comic book bears witness to the more complex history that unfolded during its two-year production process.
Although Dr. King and the participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were proponents of nonviolence, the resistance against them was violent. The comic details several acts of violence which occurred, including the bombing of several local churches including that of Rev. Graetz and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
Mixing fact with fiction, the comic portrays a character called, “Jones” who is seen in the panel below deciding to organize a boycott in support of Rosa Parks. In reality a local activist named Jo Ann Robinson organized the boycott including the mimeographing and distribution of the notices to boycott the buses after Rosa Parks’ arrest. Robinson was interviewed for Henry Hampton’s series Eyes on the Prize, and described her role in the boycott,
I, as President of the main body of the Women’s Political Council, got on the phone and I called all the officers of the three chapters. I called as many of the men who had supported us as possible and I told them that Rosa Parks had been arrested and she would be tried. They said, you have the plans, put them into operation. I called every person who was in every school and everyplace where we had planned to be at that house…have somebody at that school or wherever it was at a certain time that I would be there with materials for them to disseminate. I didn’t go to bed that night. I cut those stencils. I ran off 35,000 copies…and I distributed them. –Interview with Jo Ann Robinson for Eyes on the Prize
By the time the comic was published in 1957, the Bus Boycott had been successfully resolved and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum across the South. The last section of the comic has a nonviolence “handbook” or primer titled, “How the Montgomery Method Works.” The history of Gandhi’s protests and eventual victory over the British is told, and then practical steps are listed for how to conduct a nonviolent campaign.
The direct simplicity of the comic book form and the powerful message of how a minority or oppressed group can enact social change through nonviolent protest has had resonance around the globe. The comic has been translated into Spanish, Farsi, and Arabic.
With the endorsement of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Ziada [ Egypt Director of the American Islamic Congress] distributed 2,000 copies of the comic throughout the Middle East…In a recent newsletter to supporters of the American Islamic Congress, Ziada indicated that the translated Martin Luther King comic book had been identified as contributing to the air of peaceful revolution in Egypt.
The full version of the comic can be read online here.