Congressman John Lewis is a Georgia politician and civil rights activist. In fact, he was a part of many famous civil rights acts in the late ’50s and early ’60s under the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is safe to say that Congressman Lewis has a rich, heartbreaking, important story to tell.
To tell his story, Lewis teamed up with Andrew Aydin (co-writer) and Nate Powell (artist) to create his own graphic memoir trilogy: March. The first two books are currently available with the third set to publish this August.
Book One tells Lewis’ story from the beginning, as a child in Alabama already wanting to see change. We see him take part in the Selma to Montgomery marches on “Bloody Sunday” — where protesters were beaten and teargassed by troopers — and that is just the start of our story.
As he grows up and starts college in Nashville, TN, Lewis begins taking workshops on nonviolence with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In these workshops, students were taught how to remain calm and to not retaliate even though they would not receive the same courtesy from others. Showing simple kindness to a person of color during this time of segregation could easily cause a small riot. The group organized sit-ins at local store lunch counters where black people were not permitted to sit. The book shows the slander, violence, and cruelty that the group suffered when they tried to order and refused to leave. They were soon arrested — the first of many times — and convicted of disturbing the peace. When they all refused to pay the fines, they received prison sentences that inspired several more sit-ins throughout the country. Change was already happening.
In Book Two, we see that Lewis clings to the idea of nonviolence — just as he does to this day. He agrees to become a Freedom Rider, riding the public bus next to a white person into the deep South. He and the others are tested like they never have been. The beatings are brutal, and the lack of police intervention (and more often police participation) is palpable and, honestly, sickening. The group faces imprisonment, arson, riots, murder, and the list goes on. But on each page, you see these young people continue to put their lives on the line in the name of justice. Many take notice of them, including the general attorney at that time, Robert Kennedy.
In 1963, Lewis was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he has since been known as one of the “Big Six” leaders during the Civil Rights Movement.
These books tell such an amazing, harrowing story, and the art alone plays such a huge part in it. Colored only in black and white, Powell gives us this stark reality that never takes us away from what the story is accomplishing. While the story could easily stand alone, there’s something about actually seeing it play out — without the production of a movie or TV show — that allows it to stay real.
While the majority of the story takes place in the ’60s, there are some jump cuts from 2009 when Lewis is in office, and we can see President Obama’s first inaguration. In a way we get to see how far we’ve come while realizing that those who got us here are still around. I think this does a great job in helping us realize that these things were happening not so long ago.
Unfortunately, we are reading this in the light of what has happened in our country in the past year alone. Segregation is gone, but racial prejudice still very much exists. To quote Congressman Lewis himself, “We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
These books came to mind during Black History Month, but they are certainly worth a read whenever you can get your hands on them. I won’t say it’s an easy read. It has broken my heart and caused me to shed tears several times over, but it is so, so important. March is not only John Lewis’ story; it is our country’s history — and one we should not be so quick to forget.
I would highly recommend reading March so we can remember those who were willing to give up their lives for change so that others wouldn’t have to go through the prejudices they faced.