Congressman John Lewis’s autobiographic graphic novel series continues in March: Book Two. This volume is a little over twice the length of the first book and covers a wide breath of history from 1961 to 1963, starting on a brush with death at a sit-in in Nashville, carrying through to the organization of the first Freedom Rides, triumphantly culminating in the March on Washington, and sullenly ending just before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. John Lewis, as a narrator, reflects less on what motivated his non-violent philosophies and convictions, choosing to focus more on the complexities of the figures around him. As was the case in Book One, the story was written by John Lewis, his aide Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell.
Nate Powell commands more of a presence with his artwork in this book, as the conflict between southern whites and civil rights activists heats up to explosions of violence. Pitch black ink takes up more space in these pages. The book starts when a fumigator is intentionally activated at a Nashville Krystal to murder the sit-in protestors within, represented as unrelenting thick smoke. A firebomb destroys the first of the Freedom Riders’ buses outside of Anniston, done under cover of darkness. Freedom Riders besieged in a Birmingham Greyhound bus station watch on as the Ku Klux Klan surrounds them, standing through the night in intimidating silence; white robes tinted by the moonlight but otherwise cast in shadow.
Powell makes some other consistent and relevant decisions. The least of them is drawing characters in pencil instead of ink when they are projected through a television. This is ultimately a semiotic shift for visual clarity, not truly symbolic of anything. More significant is the decision to twice show a stained glass church window with the damaged face of Jesus Christ. This is first done when describing the siege of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. 22 Freedom Riders and 1500 supports were piled into the church while under attack from 3000 whites. A brick is thrown into the church, breaking directly through Jesus’s face and into one of the sanctuary’s worshipers. This is done a second time at the book’s closing when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed. The book’s last panel is of a similar stained glass window, this time one that has been half-repaired, but with the face of Jesus whited-out and obscured, having been broken once before. I wont belabor the point about the symbolism, as it should be clear.
What I, strangely, want to elaborate on is the depiction of this book’s truest antagonist, the motherfucker Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety in the early 1960’s. Connor is always depicted with opaque glasses, his eyes never visible. He makes multiple appearances throughout the novel, even personally stranding John Lewis and others at the Alabama-Tennessee state line to fend for themselves in Klan country. Plenty of abominable pricks such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond peer their goblin heads into some panels, but even they get to have eyeballs, windows into the soul. But Bull Connor is considered such a demon by the art direction that he doesn’t even get that. This is one area where Nate Powell’s artistic license is interestingly at odds with John Lewis’s endlessly forgiving narration. While Powell is determined to denote Connor as a special kind of evil, Lewis’s words about the man border on wholesome insults: “He was still a bully. He was erratic, irresponsible and just plain mean”. This point of contrast was in all likelihood not intentional, it may very well just be a quirk of having to use language for all-ages, but it illustrated just how alien the concept of non-violence and forgiveness is to not only me, but most people in modernity, perhaps including Nate Powell himself.
The story proper of March: Book Two is lengthy and complicated, and I started off this essay summarizing some of the major events. But just like the first book, what interested me were the micro-details of the process of leading the civil rights movement. John Lewis starts this story in Nashville, an unrelenting believer in the student movement’s sit-ins and marches. He is told off by authority figures for putting the lives of himself and others on the line. One of his clergymen berates him for being prideful. But he persists nonetheless, giving up an opportunity to study abroad to commit himself to the Freedom Rides. It is through the Freedom Rides and returning to organize in Nashville that he sees his heroes dwindle slightly in his eyes as they compromise their beliefs or make strategic decisions prioritizing when to risk their life. He witnesses James Farmer peer-pressured into joining a Freedom Ride last minute. He watches as Martin Luther King Jr. refuses to participate in the Rides, instead saying that he will chose the time and place of his own Golgotha at a future date. He looks on in disgust as black fraternity members disgrace themselves for a spot in the college clubs while their fellows fight for their rights. And he begins to lose faith as the student organizations in Nashville grow too big for him to tutor, members lose a commitment to non-violence, and the movement splits into two wings.
While he finds his philosophies compromised as the movement grows, John Lewis, as he ages into his mid-twenties, still holds some sway with younger members for the beatings he took and the times he went to jail for the cause. He is elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and moves to Atlanta in 1963, where his shift from an active participant to a more distant political organizer becomes the first crack in his armor as he becomes one of the very compromisers he observed in the story’s first half. The book crescendos with John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington, but the speech is a contentious issue that white supporters in positions of political power and civil rights organizers alike nit-pick and edit all the way up until John Lewis takes the podium. John Lewis is convinced largely by civil rights organizers to cut phrases with a perceived communist undertone. He does this for the greater good of being able to give the speech at all. Lewis completes his narrative arc of this story, perhaps unwittingly converting from a direct activist to more of the politician he would become later in life. The book’s dark denouement, the Birmingham church bombing, however, ends the feeling of victory from the March, and demands that John Lewis return as a direct activist once more.
March is available through Top Shelf Productions.