March: John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement

March

Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Artist: Nate Powell

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

2013-2016

Rating: 9+ (some racist language and violence)

On July 17th, 2020 John Lewis passed away at the age of 80 years. While Lewis was perhaps best known as the long term United States Representative for Georgia’s 5th district, he was one key leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he was one of the Big Six principals who organized the 1963 March on Washington. But that is not march that gives this graphic novel its name. The name March in essence represents the entire civil movement effort African Americans “to secure for themselves the full blessings of American Life.

March won of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2016. It has been compared to Art Spiegelman’s Maus because it shined “a light on the darkest corners of the history of the 20th Century.” It also won the Eisner Award for best Reality-Base Work. This was the first time that a graphic novel was both nominated and won the National Book Award. The AV Club included March in The 25 Best Comics of the 2010s. These awards are justified.

March may be the single best way to introduce people (young and old) to the Civil Rights Movement. March shows the fear in the faces of civil rights workers who violently beaten by whites civilians and the police. It illuminates the conditions John Lewis and fellow freedom riders experienced in prison in Mississippi. Finally, it allows the reader to witness both the brutality of the attack on the civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but the joy Lewis experienced when Obama was sworn in as President.

Story

The three volumes cover distinct periods of John Lewis’s life as an activist. The first volume explores Lewis’s childhood and his interest in becoming a minister. While studying the ministry, Lewis learned about the Social Ministry. The Social Ministry requires Christians “to preach the good news, to minister to the needy, and to seek justice for all.” His interest in the Social Ministry spurred his commitment to civil rights. The volume finishes with the creation of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the successful effort to desegregate the Nashville lunch counters in February, 1960.

In volume two SNCC begins the harrowing Freedom Rides bus rides through the South. These rides challenged segregation on buses. The federal courts had overturned these laws, but bus companies refused to follow the laws. Lewis and the Freedom Riders faced extraordinary violence from the police and white southerners. After the Freedom Rides, the story shifts to organizing the March on Washington in 1963. Lewis was a member of the Big Six civil rights organizers for the event and one of the primary speakers. The book ends with the murder of Medgar Evans and foreshadows the violence that engulf the south after the March on Washington.

Volume 3 starts with the Birmingham church bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, but quickly shifts to registering voters in Selma, Alabama in response to the violence. The move to Selma started one of the most violent and critical parts of the civil rights movement. The book culminates with the walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama that ended in bloodshed.

As John Lewis and 600 other peaceful protestors walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by local and state police. While the protestors were on their knees praying on the bridge, the police charged and beat the protestors with clubs. Even John Lewis’s skull was fractured during his attack. The attack became known as “Bloody Sunday” and 15 minutes of the attack was broadcast on television during primetime. This event changed the course of the civil rights movement.

Throughout the all three volumes of March, in the background it tells the story of Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 through John Lewis’s eyes. At the beginning of March it would have been unthinkable that a black man could become president. Obama’s inauguration showed that in many ways, the crusade for civil rights has succeeded. But the fact that Volume 3 was published in 2016 also reminds us that Lewis’s fight is not over.

Powell’s artwork for March is incredibly powerful. The AV Club stated that his “stark black-and-white artwork is acutely attuned to the emotions of the story, reinforcing the terror of the harrowing attacks on Lewis and his companions as well as the joy” they experienced from their successes. Powell’s effectively communicates both the action of the story and its quiet moments. The scene where Lewis is preaching to his chickens is just as moving the ones where protestors are fleeing the police for their lives.

Creators

March was written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, his former campaign press secretary. Aydin convinced Lewis that a graphic novel could be not only informative about the Civil Rights Movement but inspire young people to fight for their rights. March starts with his childhood and finishes with the 1965 signing of the Civil Rights Act.

John Lewis had a long distinguished career as an activist, politician and a writer. During the Carter Administration he served as associate director for ACTION and several other posts. In 1981, Lewis was elected to an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council and served until 1986. In 1986, he was elected to Georgia’s 5th district. He served in Congress until his death in 2020. In addition to March, Lewis also wrote his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement with Mike D’Orso.

Aside from writing March, Aydin served as the Digital and Director & Policy Advisor to Congressman Lewis. He has also written stories for Marvel Comics Presents, X-Files, Bitch Planet: Triple Feature and the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing.

Nate Powell is an award winning artist who has worked on Come Again, About Face, Two Dead, Any Empire,The Year of the Beasts, Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and many others. He began self-publishing a cartoon when he was 14 years old. In addition to his art, he has also performed in a punk bands and managed an underground record label, Harlan Records.

Where to get March

As always check your local comic book shop or bookstore first. You can order softcover or digital editions of the books. March is available on kindle and comiXolgy.



Categories: 9+, Non-Fiction, Top Shelf Productions

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