The final entry of the John Lewis autobiographical graphic novel series March concludes with Book Three. This book is huge, with a broad 6 by 9 print at 256 pages. While this is John Lewis’s story, the insights into the man himself are not as numerous as the other two books. The cover of the book does not even directly feature him, instead depicting the beginning of Selma’s Bloody Sunday. The novel’s narrative collects a number of stories about other figures of the civil rights movement, plus some of Lewis’s anecdotes, bookending them in between the voting rights protests he led in Selma, AL. The last page is some tongue in cheek meta commentary on choosing the medium of comics to tell this story.
In terms of the lighter anecdotes Lewis spins throughout the book, one of the first things I noticed is they lean into raunchy humor quite a lot more, while also highlighting John Lewis as a wholesome character taken aback by that crude behavior. This is set up when Lewis talks about the sex life in the youth movement, and mentions that he danced all night long with movie star Shirley Maclaine at a SNCC party but was too sweet to make a move on her, and he passed out after two beers. This pays off in an interesting set of scenes where Lewis openly weeps at a speech by Lyndon B Johnson supporting his voting rights cause, only to actually meet Johnson soon after where he is quickly overwhelmed by the famous vulgarity of Johnson’s personality in private. Before the end of the book however, Lewis gets off a dirty joke of his own while completing the titular march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
Of the new insights present in the book, we get a glimpse of Lewis set adrift politically when he and his best friend visit Africa. In Liberia, Ghana, and Ethiopia, Lewis is surprised to find that he is considered right wing compared to many of the fellow organizers he meets there, who give him the advice that if he isn’t left of Malcolm X then they are wasting time trying to rub shoulders with political activists in African nations. It is also here where he has his final conversation with Malcolm X in person, someone who Lewis is consistently flabbergasted by in all of the series’ books. This is one area of the story that I think underwent a great deal of editorializing. Lewis does not elaborate on Malcolm X in a meaningful way within the text, instead mentioning that Malcolm X always felt like an outsider, briefly mentioning Malcolm X’s class-first politics as a dividing point but not elaborating on why Lewis thinks he is wrong necessarily. The approach with narration describing Malcolm X and other figures including MLK regarding their class politics feels like it is dodging a sore subject, and is one the weaknesses the series has overall.
While digging into the specifics of radical politics may be shallow in this series, the retelling of first-hand accounts of protests in Mississippi and Selma are deep. Soon after the Mississippi Summer project began in 1964, an initiative to securing voting rights for all in Mississippi, three student volunteers were stopped and murdered by local police. A portion of the book plays out like a procedural, complete with civil rights activists putting Mississippi police on the backfoot as the activists get the cops to admit that there had been a crime in the first place. From there the story covers Fannie Lou Hamer’s live televised testimony to the nation that LBJ attempted to broadcast over to as part of his effort to avoid “losing the south for a generation”. While LBJ was responsible for passing a great deal of progressive policies relevant to this day (enough to make him my dark horse pick as a Top 5 US President), this book makes it clear that his civil rights legislation was motivated from the bottom up.
The final section of the book has Lewis leading the marches through Selma, aiming for Montgomery, AL. The illustration of the violence of Bloody Sunday on March 7th, 1965 is done in two spreads, one framed with black ink, depicting John Lewis getting back up after fearing he would die after being struck in the head by a police officer for attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge. The next spread is cast over in white negative space, meant to imply the heavy tear gas from canisters deployed by law enforcement doing the opposite of enforcing the law. Lewis gets back up and retreats with his fellow protesters, delivering a speech before collapsing from his injuries and waking up in a hospital. The events of Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King’s involvement in the subsequent marches and LBJ’s calling for a joint session of Congress led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The book closes out ending the framing device that has wrapped around all three books, the inauguration of Barack Obama. Lewis fields a call lamenting that the Kennedy’s could not be alive to see the day, and then talks with his aide Andrew Aydin about the creation of this very series of graphic novels. Lewis cites ‘Martin Luther King, the Montgomery Story’, a 14 page 1956 comic about MLK’s involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott as the piece of media that inspired him to become an activist, and that is the reason why Aydin approached him with the idea of making his memoirs a graphic novel series.
Comic books of the past had a penchant for being used as stealth evangelical tools. Often dismissed as kitsch pulp by adults, independent groups were able to disseminate materials to youth about political positions that were not mainstream. This wasn’t always a positive, Chick tracks used this kind of subversive distribution method as well, but it is fair to say that this method of subversive communication to youths about underground political views has moved to the internet and far away from comics.
The March series has its conceptual origins in this form of political communication but does not seek to replicate it, mostly because that is impossible now. If it were intended as subversive material it would need to adapt the style of modern DC or Marvel comics to fly under the radar, but instead Nate Powell was chosen as the artist, who has an unmistakable style among graphic novelists. I already talked extensively about the pedagogical intent of March when writing about the first volume, and these are books that should be used as mainstream primary sources, best found in libraries and classrooms. Granted, right-wing attacks on public education this past year could see these sorts of books used again in an underground fashion if Republicans manage to achieve what is more clearly becoming a material goal for them, destroying public schools. Let’s just rally to ensure it doesn’t revert to that.
The March series was written by John Lewis and his aide Andrew Aydin. It was illustrated by Nate Powell. Edited by Leigh Walton. Available through Top Shelf Productions.