John Lewis (1940-2020) was one of the few remaining key members of the civil rights movement when March: Book One was published in 2013. He is one of the original Freedom Riders, served as the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and was instrumental in the organization of sit-ins. He represented the 5th congressional district of Georgia starting in 1987, since I was fresh out of the womb. And he also decided to write his memoirs as a series of three graphic novels titled March. The series was co-written by his aide Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by one of my favorite working graphic novel illustrators, Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire).
To summarize the plot, the book starts in 2009 on Obama’s presidential inauguration. John Lewis recounts his childhood and teen years to a few young visitors that have come to his congressional office. Lewis highlights his first face to face meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, his choice to reject becoming the first black student at Troy University due to potential threats on his family, and the protests he participated in while he was a student in Nashville. Lewis starts off with personal parts of his early life, and the stories about raising chickens, preaching and getting his teaching inform the non-violent philosophies he would adopt slightly later in life.
It is in the second narrative arc of Book One where the details really grabbed me. Lewis goes into the nitty gritty of what it was like to mentally and physically prepare for a sit in. The average public school may teach students about the great physical danger that protesters were placed in during each demonstration. But what is rarely touched upon, and can only really be related through a first hand account, is the amount of preparation and dedication it took to commit to non-violence. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee would hold preparatory lessons and classes where fellow members would degrade each other to practice what it would be like to encounter that during an actual sit-in. The average person cannot be expected to be yelled at, insulted, humiliated and trampled upon without directly fighting back at some point. Non-violence was a discipline that had to be selected for based on temperament, then practiced through experience, and finally tested by the worst the 1960s American south had to offer.
To talk about the illustration style for a moment, Nate Powell had to research and study the faces of hundreds of actual civil rights activists. Some of these figures only appear for a single panel, and are unnamed, but represent someone who did participate in these events. In order to avoid the entire book feeling like a courtroom illustrator had some extra time on their hands, Powell started his caricatures of real people with their basic skull shape, adding details where necessary depending on their size in the frame. As with his other work, facial details are inked loose and he does not work strictly on model. The book is grayscale with 3-5 values of mid tone washes for clear details (such as skintone) and depth.
This memoir is both anthropological and didactic in nature. It aims to teach others about this time in history, but in a more personal way than a rote recitation of events. The first hand interpersonal testimony from one of the most active participants adds the anthropological element because it comments on how any human being would respond to extreme situations and how to steel oneself for the worst. The biggest take away from an initial read would be the amount of sacrifices taken by individuals to fight for their civil rights, and a secondary read may reveal how much of an obstacle the well meaning incrementalism of political powers ostensibly on the civil rights movement side actually was for those doing the negotiating.
I re-read Book One after recently getting my hands on a collector’s edition of the entire graphic novel set. With the threat of rabid right-wingers railing on about so-called Critical Race Theory and successfully banning the graphic novel Maus from select school libraries, a comparison of March to Maus is inevitable to me now. March, being a first hand account of the civil rights movement, and Maus, being a second hand account of the Holocaust, share that anthropological element. But the texts have practically the opposite approach with their tone. Maus, even by today’s standards, is post-modern, edgy and painfully introspective in a way that aims to dissuade the reader of any comfort they might find in tales of valorant struggles against an oppressor. The takeaway is that trauma may never leave us and that what we recognize as heroic is more often a romanticization of good luck.
March could uncharitably be taken as apologetics for respectability politics in comparison to Maus. Respectability politics being (roughly) the idea that through setting an example that contradicts a bigot’s view of the target of their bigotry, the bigot will be left with nothing to complain about. There is limited use of explicit content in Book One, and the most violent and deadly outcomes are not censored by any means but are purposefully obscured by a looser ink illustration style. Lewis is a religious and ambitious man, who forthrightly believes in triumph through personal character, the unity of one’s peers, and changing the system rather than tearing it down. He did, after all, become part of the same federal government that allowed this to happen for so long in the first place. The book is not squeaky clean, and displays a cynicism for moderate politics that I find well placed. It artistically and functionally aims to be understood and read by younger members of society, and preemptively tries to be bullet proof against the kind of criticism a Fox News fueled fanatic would levy at it. Maus, by comparison, revels in begging for that criticism.
That being said, if this book is used in public school curriculum or is available in the library of a state swarmed by parents plagued with dread about all the high falutin actual history of the United States being taught to their doe eyed progeny, it will almost certainly fall under the exact same scrutiny despite its best efforts not to. As a matter of principle, do not let them ban it.