by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions, 560 pages
reviewed by Brian Burmeister
Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to open our eyes. The events in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” in March of 1965 became such a moment, when, in a mass gathering of civil rights, demonstrators were violently attacked with billy clubs and tear gas as they attempted to march to the state capitol in Montgomery. News crews filmed the violence as state troopers beat the peaceful, unarmed protestors.
For millions of Americans who would see those images, there was no denying what had occurred. Or that it was wrong.
That shocking attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge forced many of its viewers to grapple with the brutal realities of police responses to protesters. Political will to support the American Civil Rights movement grew in ways not previously seen in this country, and in the months that followed that attack the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be signed into law. Today, as depicted in the opening scene of the graphic narrative March, “Bloody Sunday” serves as a harrowing reminder of our history but also as encouragement that despite its painful origins, large-scale civic activism can lead to large-scale change.
Co-written by Congressman John Lewis and his Digital Director/Policy Advisor, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powell, March tells the powerful, unforgettable story of the major moments that made up the American Civil Rights Movement.
Spanning three volumes, which are available separately or as a single collection, March covers key years of civil rights leader Lewis’s life and the battles for justice he experienced firsthand. The writers skillfully frame the overarching narrative of all three books as Rep. Lewis reflects upon the Civil Rights Movement during President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration in 2009.
Presenting his upbringing in deeply segregated Alabama, Book One traces the forces that compelled and inspired Rep. Lewis to join the Movement. Through a juxtaposition of his life as a boy in rural Alabama with the realities he saw and felt during a childhood trip to Ohio, we see a young Lewis awaken to his standing as a second-class citizen. This storyline serves as a foundation for the impact that hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “social gospel” on the radio would have on him as a teenager. Inspired, a young Lewis participates in the fight for integrated colleges and equality at lunch counters; it is a fight that requires patience and self-restraint in the face of degradation and violence.
In Book Two, that violence escalates. As the Movement changes its sights to discrimination on buses and at bus terminals, the Freedom Rides begin. Testing the strength of a Supreme Court decision that banned such discrimination, Lewis and other activists ride buses throughout the South. One of March’s most haunting moments is in a depiction of the Freedom Riders fleeing from a fire-bombed bus as an angry mob armed with baseball bats, tire irons, and other makeshift weapons approaches. This visual captures the overwhelming panic, urgency, and threat of the moment. Here, as in much of Book Two, the Movement’s efforts are truly challenged. But their endurance and unending faith in a better tomorrow serve them well. Book Two also offers some of the most beautiful and uplifting moments of the trilogy, such as Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Seeing Dr. King’s speech come to life through Powell’s illustrations reinforces the passion, optimism, and love behind his words.
Book Three sees the narrative arc come full circle. The final act focuses on the march from Selma and the events that surround it. The Movement and the viciousness of its opposition hit a boiling point, forcing President Johnson to take actions to bring justice to millions who had been denied it.
While Rep. Lewis’s life is incredible, the events of March never feel self-aggrandizing. He and Aydin regularly credit the work and sacrifices of the Movement’s most famous leaders (such as Dr. King and Malcolm X) and cast a spotlight on many of the activists often less remembered by history, including women critical to the movement such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Annie Lee Cooper. The books provide a reminder that only when people work together can we begin to face our most overwhelming struggles.
In telling the stories, Powell’s beautiful black and white illustrations expertly utilize white and dark space to convey affect. In the most violent, atrocious, and tragic of moments, such as the shooting of 26-year old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper, the dark of the ink envelops the page, injecting the scene with a powerful, insidious tone. At other times, such as in the representation of President Obama’s inauguration, a true lightness takes form, and the joy of celebrating an event that almost certainly seemed impossible up until this point erupts off each page.
March is an emotional, often disturbing ride. At times, Rep. Lewis’s story will inspire profound sadness. Throughout these pages, we are reminded that so many lives were lost on the road to justice. Among those remembered are four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—murdered by a bomb while at their Birmingham church. At other times, such as when Governor George Wallace proclaims that “What this country needs is a few first class funerals,” March will make you fume with anger for the minds and actions of those fueled by deep hate and ignorance. But ultimately, March will make you feel hope. From integrated schools and lunch counters to the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, justice is real. Each step of that great march matters, however much there is still work to be done.
Rep. Lewis dedicates each book of the trilogy “To the past and future leaders of the movement…” While the overarching narrative of these books comes to a close with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the hope of March is that readers will recognize how the work of Dr. King and so many others didn’t end with them. Nor did it end with the inauguration of President Barack Obama. From the use of lethal police force to the effort of states to deny voting rights, systemic racism continues to plague this nation. Wherever, whenever, there is injustice, the march must continue.
Brian Burmeister teaches writing and communication at Iowa State University. He co-wrote the nonfiction play, Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment, published by Ice Cube Press, and his writing has appeared in The Feminst Wire and Thin Air Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @bdburmeister.