I will confess to not knowing a whole lot about John Lewis, aside perhaps from the fact that he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, before this notorious tweet came out the Oval Office during Black History Month and just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:
He certainly wasn’t in my mind as an author, although the award-winning March trilogy (Top Shelf Productions, 49.99 USD) had been on my radar for a few years, since the first two books had been released while I was still working in a library. However, the fact that Donald Trump obviously had no idea who he was (he probably just googled to find out that Lewis is a Congressman from Georgia’s fifth district and applied the usual Trumpian insults) told me that I needed to educate myself, now, especially since I’d been reading to my kids about MLK and Rosa Parks, and his name had come up in some of what we’d read. This man led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, as such, is the last living member of the Big Six leaders of the national march on Washington for jobs and freedom. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. This man is a giant among men. Our current president would do well to educate himself as well.
So, I requested the first book from the library, and I requested the second and third books as soon as I started the first one because it was so good. I honestly can’t say how much the graphic part of these graphic novels figure in to how compelling they are, because the story is just that incredible, but I do think that the scenes of violence against the peaceful civil rights protesters are more viscerally felt when there are images to go along with them. Nate Powell, the artist, has a gift for conveying gut-wrenching action and terrifying confusion:
Powell also conveys raw will and conviction overcoming fear of death using stark contrasts and shades of gray:
Lewis starts out with his early life, as the son of sharecroppers, and as a child, he dreamed of being a preacher. He cared for the family’s chickens and developed an unusual attachment to them, going so far as to preach sermons to them. However, as a college student, he became involved in lunch counter sit-ins and quickly became a leader of the student civil rights movement, and though he graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, he knew that the civil rights issue was the most important issue of his time and threw his full dedication behind it.
Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. He spoke at the 1963 march on Washington, which led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He led the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He led the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, along with Hosea Williams and was beaten, along with 600 other marchers, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was at the front of the second, successful march from Selma to Montgomery two weeks later – an event which directly led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made the literacy tests, essay questions, and other obstacles presented to African Americans registering to vote illegal. Reading a first-hand account of all these significant moments in history makes them far more real than the one paragraph that the civil rights movement was granted in my high school history textbook.
The books don’t gloss over the disagreements between the various civil rights groups (SNCC, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP; Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC; Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE; National Urban League, or NUL; Negro American Labor Council, or NALC; etc.), and it was enlightening to learn how many different opinions there were on how to go about protesting for the rights of African Americans. Issues such as whether or not violence should be used are fairly well-known; I have always thought of that as the biggest difference between MLK and Malcolm X, though Lewis makes it clear that there was mutual respect between them. However, even issues such as whether white people should be welcomed to participate in the movement, and in what capacity, also created rifts among the groups that shared a mutual goal.
One issue I find particularly important with regard to current events is intersectionality. Although the involvement of LGBT members is touched on with the mention of Bayard Rustin, and the virtual sidelining of African-American women in the movement is mentioned (despite their critical role in drawing attention to the violence committed against peaceful protesters – for instance, the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer on her attempt to register to vote), Lewis does not dwell on these issues for more than a page or two. It’s understandable why he doesn’t; this is primarily his experience at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and there is plenty to discuss without further exploring these slights. The fact that they are even mentioned along with the infighting of the various civil rights groups is instructional for the current movement to ensure that rights earned with blood, sweat, tears – and lives – are not stripped away by an administration that gives far too much audience to white nationalists. Only by working together, with our brothers and sisters of different genders, races, sexual orientations, beliefs, and abilities, will we be able to preserve the rights already won and further build a road to true equality.