Comic heroes of the Egyptian revolution: How Martin Luther King found his way to Tahrir Square
Cover of the Arabic version of "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," which Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada translated into Arabic and distributed among protesters at Tahrir Square.
Dalia Ziada, Cairo director of the American Islamic Congress, who brought Martin Luther King Jr.'s principles of nonviolent action to Egyptians restless for change.
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Last week, amid the throngs of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a young woman named Dalia Ziada engaged in an unusual form of revolutionary activity. She made her way through the crowds busily distributing an Arabic version of "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," an obscure, 50-year-old American comic book. To Ms. Ziada, Cairo director of the American Islamic Congress, getting this publication into the hands of as many protesters as possible was as important as shouting for democracy and brandishing signs demanding Hosni Mubarak's resignation.
I ran across Ms. Ziada's Arabic translation of "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" last year when researching the comic book for the exhibition "Civil Rights Superheroes" at Pittsburgh's ToonSeum. a Downtown museum that celebrates the art of cartooning. I was curious as to why a young woman who lists "Mariah Carey and all Al Pacino movies" among her likes on her blogger profile thought this obscure comic book was so instrumental to the student movements of the Middle East.
When I began my research in 2009, little was known about "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story." Commissioned in 1956 by the Christian pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the comic book tells the story of Dr. King and follows the Montgomery bus boycott from Rosa Parks' arrest in December 1955 to its successful conclusion in December 1956.
It also served as a primer on the roots and principles of nonviolent resistance, which it called "the Montgomery Method." The Fellowship hoped that the comic book, intended for adults as well as children, for white Americans as well as black Americans, would encourage nonviolent action on behalf of civil rights.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation had a long-established record of political activism by the mid-1950s, but "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" was its first foray into comic books. It was a curious time to delve into the industry.
In 1954, a major attack had been launched on the medium. Books like Frederic Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent" and Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency branded the medium a corrupting force. Regulations under the newly formed Comic Code Authority had dramatically restricted comic book content.
The Fellowship challenged these restrictions with "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story." The group hired the creators of the Li'l Abner comic strip to illustrate the book and Benton Resnick, a blacklisted comic book writer, to write the text, which included content that subtly skirted the authority's guidelines.
Above all, the comic book championed the civil rights movement and encouraged readers to use "the Montgomery Method" to create change at a time when Jim Crow ruled the South and African-Americans appeared only as stereotypes in mainstream comic books.
The comic book debuted in early 1958, complete with an endorsement by Dr. King himself. Dr. King called it "an excellent piece of work" that did a "marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement."
It was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions. The Rev. James Lawson, who worked for the Fellowship's Tennessee office and helped organize the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, recalled passing it out from the trunk of his car at mass protests in the South.
Few original copies of the comic book have survived. Rumor has it that the content was considered so threatening to the status quo that readers burned their copies to protect themselves.
But "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" has been far from forgotten. In fact, its influence has been global.
Just two years after its publication, four African-American students in Greensboro, N.C., sat at a segregated lunch counter, sparking the pivotal sit-ins of the civil rights movement. One of the students later said he had read "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" and thought to himself, "If they can do it, why can't we?"
Soon after its American release, the comic book was distributed in South Africa as part of the anti-apartheid movement (eventually leading to its banning by authorities). In a letter to the Fellowship, Jerome Nkosi, a young missionary in Johannesburg, wrote that after reading it, "I feel all the more challenged to do what I can to apply the suggestions outlined in the closing pages to our local situations which, as you well know, are far from being commendable."
Around that same time, the Fellowship translated the comic book into Spanish for distribution throughout Latin America and to migrant workers in the United States. By the time Dalia Ziada discovered it in 2006, "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" had inspired nonviolent revolutions here and abroad for more than 50 years.
Ms. Ziada first became acquainted with Dr. King's writings when she attended a civil rights conference in Cairo. One presentation focused on the American civil rights leader, and it changed her approach to social activism.
"It was amazing and really moved me," she said. "Since then, I decided to use [Dr. King's] nonviolent strategies in everything in my life, starting from my personal life to major political participation and civil problems, and it worked perfectly!"
Ms. Ziada told me that translating the comic book into Arabic seemed the best way to engage students in the Middle East.
"The young generations must learn that being young does not mean being weak and apathetic," she said. "[Dr. King] was only 29 years old when he launched his campaign and motivated the whole Afro-American community. We have the power to turn our dreams into real tangible facts. Martin Luther King was an inspirational role model for me, and I was sure that it be so for the young people in my region of the world."
Moving from inspiration to publication proved more problematic. Although the Arabic translation and graphic editing were relatively easy, getting past the restrictive censorship laws in Egypt was not.
"Pushing for democracy and inciting young people to attain civil rights was taboo in Egypt," said Ms. Ziada, "but thanks to the nonviolent technique of negotiation and pressure, I got the approval -- which was impossible once."
She invited the security officer who blocked publication to share a cup of coffee and discuss the book. They read through it page by page to address his concerns.
"Strangely, he liked it and helped me edit the sentences that might cause trouble!" Ms. Ziada recalled. He granted permission to print it. He then asked, "Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?"
As you might imagine, Dalia has been on my mind over the past few weeks. So I was happy to receive this e-mail from her Feb. 10:
"I have had the privilege to help nurture young reformers across the region. Their dream -- a vision of civil rights deferred for three decades by emergency law -- is now shaping up before our eyes."
Her message reminded me of a prophetic e-mail she sent me last year:
"I am sure that our dream is like MLK's dream ... not impossible, and will happen soon."
One year and one day later, that dream came closer to reality when Hosni Mubarak resigned, the only Egyptian president that 29-year-old Dalia had ever known.
While researching "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," I read dozens of laudatory letters about it in the Fellowship's archives at Swarthmore College. But one letter stood out in its questioning of the work. The writer asked if the "adulation" of figures like Dr. King wasn't perhaps "excessive." He worried about making "myths'" of them.
I took his point.
Without question Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were key figures in the Montgomery bus boycott. But its success was due to the thousands of African-Americans who chose to walk miles every day for a year rather than board a segregated bus, to those who risked their safety to drive in carpools, to countless others who stood by the boycotters. Their names may not be as well known, but it is the people who refuse to be apathetic who create social change.
It is people like Dalia, pushing her way through Tahrir Square to pass out comic books, that help make civil rights a dream realized.
First Published February 20, 2011 12:00 am