In his quest to foster a nation of equality and justice for people of all races, Martin Luther King Jr. helped create, of all things, a comic book.
Commissioned by the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation and written with King's involvement, The Montgomery Story was published in January 1958, in the midst of the civil-rights movement.
As in any comic, illustrations, word balloons and thought bubbles told the story of an unlikely superhero defeating evil. Only this story was real.
In its 16 pages, the comic recounts the historic 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. In Montgomery, Ala., disobeying bus-segregation rules meant ridicule, abuse and possible jail time. Under King's direction, hundreds of blacks chose to walk rather than submit to injustice. Their efforts crippled the bus companies, and a 1956 court ruling proved segregation no match for such real-life heroes as King and Rosa Parks.
Pittsburgh's Toonseum, a museum for the art and history of cartoons, celebrates the revolutionary comic with the exhibit Civil Rights Superheroes: Martin Luther King Jr. and The Montgomery Story. Aside from the comic itself (which will be enlarged and available to read), the exhibit explores the book's purpose in the movement through timelines, video, primary documents and other comics from the period.
For instance, the comic's final pages provide instructions for nonviolent resistance. King's floating head guides readers through the story of Gandhi, followed by a step-by-step manual on peaceful protest.
Though the book was written by a blacklisted comic artist, "Martin Luther King gave direct edits of this comic book," says Sylvia Rhor, the Carlow University assistant professor of art history who curated Civil Rights Superheroes.
Rhor (who wrote her master's thesis on editorial cartoons) was fascinated by the presentation: "Using a comic book [to spread this information] was a powerful choice, because comic books were coming under fire for inspiring juvenile delinquency, but they're using it to inspire social justice."
"I think we don't think about comic books when we talk about really loaded issues," says Rohr. "To create a superhero of Martin Luther King and the people of Montgomery was really powerful."
"Comics are important because they're not only the most common [medium], but the most accessible," says Joe Wos, executive director of the Toonseum. "Cartoons have always caused social change," he adds, recalling Ben Franklin's famous "Join or Die" image. "There's something very powerful about that visual element."
Although The Montgomery Story was used as a teaching tool for adults and children in the American South, Rhor says, it has since developed a global influence. It's been republished in Spanish for use in student movements. In just the past two years, it was translated into Arabic, Farsi and Vietnamese.
Nonetheless, The Montgomery Story has been overlooked by the research community. Rohr's work has invigorated study of the comic, and earned her invitations to present at civil-rights conferences and the Popular Culture Association conference this spring in St. Louis.
Civil Rights Superheroes continues through March 14. Toonseum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $3-4 (free for children under 5). 412-232-0199 or www.toonseum.org