John Lewis is a Civil Rights hero. Do you know why he is a hero? Until recently, I couldn’t really answer that question. Thankfully, Congressman Lewis wrote a graphic novel: March, with help from aide Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. The third and final volume was published last year. March primarily covers Lewis’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement from 1960 until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, with a framing story set on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration.
My biggest takeaway from the book was the sheer extent of Lewis’s participation. It seems like he had a hand in everything. A non-exhaustive list of his actions during the Civil Rights Movement:
- Working to desegregate the lunch counters of Nashville as a 20-year-old college student in 1960
- Riding with the first cohort of Freedom Riders in 1961, then organizing a continuation of the ride after the first bus was firebombed and destroyed
- Directing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966
- Speaking at the March on Washington (He was the youngest speaker and the only speaker still alive today.)
- Organizing voter registration and community education in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer
- And of course, Selma
March: Book One opens in media res, showing Lewis’s march at the head of the first Selma march on March 7, 1965, a.k.a. Bloody Sunday, for which he got his skull cracked, after which March: Book One goes to the framing device, leaving the Selma story to be picked up not in March: Book Two, but in March: Book Three, which shows Martin Luther King’s march at the head of the second march on March 9, a.k.a. Turnaround Tuesday, during which Lewis is still hospitalized for the injury he sustained during the first march, then the third march, for which Lewis had sufficiently recovered, allowing him to march in the front line of the third, successful, Selma-to-Montgomery march, the last significant Civil Rights action depicted in March, on March 21, March 22, March 23, March 24 and March 25.
The graphic novel doesn’t show anything after the ’60s other than Obama’s inauguration, but it resonates with current events as good books tend to do. Some of the things that struck me:
- Just how fractured the Civil Rights Movement could be. Being composed of students and other youth, SNCC was frequently impatient with the slow pace of progress and relative conservatism of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Even Lewis wasn’t safe — during March: Book Three in particular it feels like SNCC is breaking up from under him. He marched at Selma as a private citizen rather than a representative of SNCC. Lewis’s guiding lights were always MLK and nonviolence as a philosophy, rather than as a tactic. Many disagreed.
- How John Lewis’s speech for the March on Washington had to be rewritten because the other march organizers thought it too harsh and combative. The original called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “too little too late,” questioned the Kennedy administration’s commitment to civil rights and threatened a march through the south “the way Sherman did.” The speech he delivered supported the Civil Rights Act “with great reservation” and left out the other inflammatory parts. Was it censorship, or was it good tactics? Or was it both? Or was it censorship and bad tactics?
- How white allies in civil rights organizing spurred conflict as well. “N—-r lovers” were beaten up as badly as, or even worse than their black compatriots. But this violence against white people in the movement always received much more coverage than violence against black people, which naturally fostered resentment. SNCC debated at length about the role of white people, whether they should take visible leadership, whether they should be allowed in SNCC at all, etc. In the end, the coalition did not last long, though long enough.
- And finally, the intensity of the training and preparation that organizers went through. Nonviolence requires that you refrain from the natural response to indignity and abuse. You say thank you when someone dumps garbage on you. You curl up when being attacked rather than fighting back, yet you still maintain eye contact. The organizers blew smoke in each other’s faces. They called each other “n—-r.” They practiced everything that might happen to them, in order to prepare themselves to resist, and to sift out the ones who could not handle that level of abuse. Those people still had a role in the movement, but they couldn’t be on the front lines. Contrast this with a deliberately improvisational movement like Occupy Wall Street.
Lewis is diligent in giving credit to the many people he worked with, and takes the time to depict events for which he wasn’t physically present, so the book also functions as a decent history of the Civil Rights Movement. The framing device is moving and the illustrations are great. The story really benefits from being a graphic novel. One “issue” is that the book is about real, realistically depicted people rather than weirdos in colorful costumes, so if you share my, er, talent for faces, sometimes you might have trouble remembering which characters are which.
Overall, March is a fantastic book, and it seems that people agree with me, because it’s won a boatload of awards. Buy it, or check it out from your local library.