March I, II, and III by John Lewis
Across Cascadia, there are reports of peaceful demonstrations happening almost daily. The Women’s March on Bellingham on Sat., Jan. 21 drew record crowds, there have been several rallies at the Peach Arch border crossing in support of immigrants, and a March for Science is in the planning stages.
Of course, marches as a form of political protest are nothing new, as John Lewis, an American icon known for his key role in the devastating 1965 Bloody Sunday March on Selma, can attest.
Lewis, now a United States Congressman representing Georgia’s 5th district, collaborated with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell on a three-book graphic novel series, fittingly titled March.
March: Book One came out in 2013; Book Two in 2015, and Book Three in 2016. All have been highly acclaimed. At the Youth Media Awards press conference in Atlanta this January, the American Library Association honored March: Book Three with four awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award and the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult’s literature.
Though written for teens, this graphic novel series is equally powerful for adults. Told entirely in expressive black-and-white ink-wash drawings with hand-lettered text, March recounts Lewis’ lifelong commitment to civil rights, focusing mostly on his activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in the early 1960s.
Book One opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where nervous young men in dark suits ask each other if they know how to swim, as the protestors face off with Alabama State Troopers wielding billy clubs and tear gas. It jumps in time to 2009, the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, then back to Lewis’s childhood up through his early days in the civil rights movement.
While Book One chronicles the first lunch-counter sit-ins, Book Two focuses on the Freedom Riders and the Birmingham Church Bombing, and Book Three looks at the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the continued struggle to affirm the rights of African-Americans to vote. The last half zooms in on Selma, Lewis’s repeated arrests and the fateful Sunday when Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper.
The subject matter is inherently somber and serious, and Powell conveys nuanced emotions in the faces of the various characters: ministers at a nonviolence workshop steeling themselves for verbal assault; Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, enraged by sit-ins across his state; John Lewis meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time. Powell uses extreme close-ups, bird’s-eye viewpoints, and an occasional all black page with reversed images for maximum effect.
Although March is by and about John Lewis, and Lewis’ central role in the civil rights movement as a member of the “Big Six” is unquestionable and worthy of attention, Lewis quite deliberately shows that he is but one of thousands who participated to bring about great change.
That, plus Lewis’s unwavering insistence on nonviolence, are two of the most powerful messages that come through in these books. Who knows? March might inspire you to get out there yourself and march for what you believe in.
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 22, 2017)