Now that the summer semester I was teaching is over, and given recent events in the United States — What the hell is happening? I mean, I know what’s happening, but WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING? — I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some reviews that I never got around to. And what better books to start with than John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s award-winning graphic memoir series, March?
Told in stark black and white panels, the series centers around John Lewis’s remarkable life. Lewis, who organized alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights figureheads in his young and has gone on to fight for civil rights as a Congressman, grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in Alabama. He originally wanted to be a preacher and get away from working in the fields. He fought to attend school, and upon graduation, felt called to higher education away from the South. Still, the Jim Crow South was his life, and as he gained a better understanding of the world, he felt compelled to join the fight for civil rights. March: Book One charts his commitment to education as well as his entry into the civil rights movement, including his first encounter with Dr. King. It recounts behind-the-scenes, nonviolent strategizing among the student movement and culminates with the fight to desegregate lunch counters.
Moving on from the success of the sit-ins, March: Book Two shows Lewis climbing into more prominent — and dangerous — positions within the civil rights movement. The second book shows his work with the Freedom Riders, which took him and his fellow activists into much more dangerous territory. The group faced police beatings, arrest, bombings, and and assault from locals wherever they traveled. Still, they were committed to the cause and to nonviolence and gained the attention of much more prominent figures in the movement.
Ultimately, at the age of 23, Lewis was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and thus became a member of the “Big Six” — a reference to the leaders of the six main civil rights organizations at the time. As such, he was one of the main faces of the historic 1963 March on Washington.
It’s pretty amazing how graphic novels as a medium are able to convey so much in a relatively small amount of space (both of these books are less than 200 pages long). The series is sophisticated enough to contextualize large chunks of nuanced history into an understandable format for people of all ages. The books also underscore the importance of one present-day historical event in particular: in snippets, both books include vignettes from President Obama’s inauguration.
Book Three, which I have not read yet (but definitely plan to soon!), wraps up the series with the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Given current events, these books are more important now than ever: people’s rights were not just benevolently granted to them. Those rights were fought for in the face of a long, violent, bloody, steadfast fight that still taking place in different forms to this day.
March: Book One was published in 2013, and March: Book Two was published in 2015 by Top Shelf Productions.