Shortly after noon on August 26, 1961, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Elmer Hayes filled two vacant stools at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in McComb, Mississippi. When the two African American students were refused service at the segregated dining spot, police arrested the pair for failing to “disperse and move on” in violation of Jim Crow laws.
Both men carried copies of a 10-cent comic book that had long been circulating among young civil rights activists. A year earlier, the 16-page comic had inspired Ezell Blair and his roommate, Joseph McNeill to stage boycotts in Greensboro, North Carolina. Days after reading it, they and two other North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students refused to give up their seats at a Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter, launching the sit-in movement across the South.
The comic book that helped spark a generation of young civil rights protestors did not feature superheroes, but a 42-year-old seamstress and a 26-year-old Baptist pastor. Printed in 1957, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story recounts the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began after police arrested civil rights activist Rosa Parks for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The successful protest that ended segregation on Montgomery’s buses propelled the young pastor who led the movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national fame.
When Comic Books Were Radical
The idea for the comic book came from Alfred Hassler, publications director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith social justice organization that promotes nonviolent activism. The publishing format was an unusual choice not only because the fellowship had no experience publishing comic books, but because comic books were detested by many Americans in the 1950s as a corrupting influence on the morals of America’s youth.
In 1954, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held televised hearings on the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, and schools and civic organizations staged bonfire burnings of “lurid” comic books. Even Hassler himself forbade his children from reading them. Still, he saw the medium’s value in reaching a different, younger audience than a conventional book.
“It was incredibly courageous to make a comic book at that time, but also more possible than ever for an organization like the Fellowship of Reconciliation to work with top-notch illustrators,” says Andrew Aydin, who wrote his master’s thesis on the history and impact of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. “The people who worked on it were driven out of the comic book industry by associating and working with some of the companies targeted by the hearings.”
Hassler and Benton Resnik co-wrote the text, while artist Sy Barry, best known for his work on the Phantom comic strip, illustrated the book. King, himself, not only approved of the project, but made small editorial changes to the script. The text detailed the bus boycott and included practical instruction on how activists could u the nonviolent “Montgomery Method” of protest to bring about social change.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation distributed 250,000 copies of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story to schools, churches and civil rights groups. Beyond U.S. borders, it eventually inspired anti-apartheid protests in South Africa before the government banned the comic book’s possession. The Fellowship of Reconciliation distributed Spanish-language editions in Latin America, and decades on, Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada worked to have the comic book translated into Arabic and Farsi. After getting approval under Egypt’s rigorous censorship laws, Ziada distributed the comic book in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab Spring that resulted in the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Text Credit: Christopher Klein