“March” is a graphic novel trilogy describing events from the Civil Rights Movement told by one of the people who made it possible, Georgia congressman John Lewis. He wrote the book with his policy adviser Andrew Aydin and it was illustrated by Nate Powell. Not only a best-seller, it is also the first nonfiction graphic novel to win the National Book Award.
John Lewis is a year younger than I am, and I thought I had followed his career fairly closely, but this book gave me a greater appreciation for his role in the Civil Rights Movement. I lived through these times in the South, but I did not comprehend the dangers of being black in a white- ruled society. Reading these volumes and absorbing their images, I rediscovered personal reactions to the story they tell.
During my public school days, I attended segregated schools, as did Lewis. The year before I enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, it became the first major universtiy in the South to allow black students admission into undergraduate classes. But while I was there, two memorable events shaped my thinking because they affected people I knew.
One was the student stand-in that led to the desegregation of the locally owned off-campus movie theater. Until reading “March,” I didn’t know the stand-in was a model adopted by Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the major Civil Rights Movement organizations of the 1960s.
The other event was an action taken by the UT Board of Regents. They refused to allow the role of Aida to be performed by an African-American girl, because it was deemed “inappropriate” to portray a white boy romantically linked with a black girl.
“March: Book One” traces Lewis’s life from his childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Alabama through his college years as a student advocate, joining SNCC and participating in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. His parents discouraged him from taking any action that challenged the status quo, but Lewis became committed to nonviolent actions that would draw public attention to segregation.
In “March: Book Two,” Lewis gives an account of the expansion of SNCC membership following the success of the sit-ins. Along with success, there came an escalation of attacks on demonstrators, including the freedom riders in 1961.
The freedom rides were designed to test the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on buses and in bus terminals. The freedom riders boarded buses in Washington, D.C. bound for Birmingham, Alabama. Lewis said joining them was “the most important decision in my life.” The first bus was bombed and the riders on the second were brutally beaten by Klansmen while police stood by.
“March: Book Three” covers some of the most brutal and memorable incidents of the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed 4 little girls and left another 21 children injured.
Lewis also describes voter registration efforts in Mississippi. The demonstrations brought enough public pressure that the federal law protecting voter rights was passed in 1965.
But the unwillingness of the federal government to enforce civil rights laws led to a drive to register black voters, unleashing a flood of violence resulting in over 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings and 35 bombings.
Although many in the movement wanted to meet violence with violence, Lewis perservered and did not waiver from his belief in nonviolent tactics. He was invited to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, though friction over the content of his speech continued up until moments before he took the stage.
“March” reminds me of how far our nation has come from the days of Jim Crow, and I am even more amazed at how far we still need to go.
The Pierce County Library System chose “March” for its 11th Annual Pierce County READS program this year. The program encourages Pierce County residents to read the same book at the same time (from March through May) and engage with each other to discuss it.
The Key Center Library will host one such discussion Thursday, April 26, at 11 a.m. Copies are available at the library.