Rep. John Lewis, the Congressman serving Georgia’s 5th district since 1987, is one of the most titanic figures of the United States Civil Rights movement from the 1950’s and 1960’s. In a trilogy of graphic novels, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, Lewis recounts his involvement in the movement. Across the three books, virtually every major event during the movement is covered. This history of the battle for justice and equality for Black Americans is essential knowledge as the fight continues well into the twenty-first century. March serves as a reminder of how far the nation was able to progress due to the sheer, unrelenting will of African Americans during Rep. Lewis’ life and just how far we collectively have to go.
For those who aren’t familiar with John Lewis, March serves as an astounding introduction to how important he was to the Civil Rights movement. Throughout the three volumes of the series, Lewis meets and interacts with nearly every pivotal figure of the Civil Rights movement from Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Stokley Carmichael, and more. Lewis is similarly directly or tangentially involved in nearly every pivotal event from the period. Lewis was one of the inaugural Freedom Riders, helped organize and spoke at the March on Washington, and was on the front-lines of the march in Selma. Any one person with a fifth of Lewis’ achievements would be considered an American hero, let alone all of them.
The series is co-written by Andrew Aydin, who served as Rep. Lewis’ Digital Director & Policy Advisor. As far as I can tell, this is Aydin’s only published work in comics. It doesn’t show. The books flow well and take full advantage of the visual medium that comic books allow. I’m partial to comics, no doubt, but some of the moments strike me as more memorable and emotionally impacting when relayed through illustration. Aydin seems to have a knack for knowing when to do so. He is surely helped in this endeavor by the endlessly talented comic book artist Nate Powell. Some may be familiar with Powell’s previous graphic novels, including Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole. Powell does a masterful job rendering both the moments of tenderness and utter agony.
Some of the violence contained in these pages is absolutely gut-wrenching. Don’t let that dissuade you from giving this series to your kids. It’s necessary to understand the realities of the Civil Rights movement to watch a crowded church surrounded by a mob of violent racists…to see the mob throw a brick through the window striking an elderly member in the head. It’s essential to see the violence perpetrated on the organizers by police baton, citizen shotgun, and KKK flames alike. To sanitize these images is to a disservice to future generations. It’s stomach-turning and rage-inducing and only serves to heighten the sense of appreciation for what Lewis and the other members of the movement were willing to sacrifice to ensure their freedom.
Like many trilogies, the books get longer as the series goes on. The first book is a short 120 or so pages, before expanding to nearly 200 and then 250 in the books that follow it. As mentioned earlier, the books serve as excellent texts to help teach anyone about the important figures and events of the Civil Rights movement. Where necessary, Lewis fills in with more background on a person like Malcom X or James Baldwin, who might not have a lot of personal interaction with himself, but nonetheless play an important role in the larger narrative of movement.
Woven throughout Lewis’ history is a recurring depiction of the events of January 20, 2009, which some amateur historians might recognize as the date of Barrack Obama’s inauguration. The choice to use the inauguration of America’s first Black president as the backdrop for Rep. Lewis’ biography is a powerful one. The symbolism is effective and moving. It all serves as a reminder as the story progresses about what Lewis is fighting for and that even in the face of violence, terrorism, verbal abuse, and political undermining that better days were on the horizon.
Reading this account of Rep. Lewis’ in the midst of the greatest collective unrest over racial injustice and inequality since the Civil Rights movement leads to conflicting emotions. It’s a sad reminder that the happy ending that was Barrack Obama’s election and inauguration wasn’t the end of the story. Now, more than ever in my lifetime, it’s clear that there is a mountain of work left to do. Many of the battles fought by Rep. Lewis and his fellow Civil Rights leaders in the 60’s are parents of many battles being fought today. The battle against police brutality perpetrated against Black people has yet to be won. The battle against voter suppression has moved from the city halls in Mississippi to the steps of state capitals around the country. Things might have improved but the job isn’t finished.
And yet, Rep. Lewis’ bravery and sacrifice are a testament that it is possible for even one person to chip away at the mountain with persistence and conviction. The path to progress is long and hard, but it’s each of our responsibility to assure that the direction remains forward. Everyone reading this should seek out the March trilogy and read it and then give it to your friends, your children, your parents, your family, and random people on the street. Whether you’re familiar with Rep. John Lewis’ history or this is the first you’ve heard of him, this series is a powerful story and can help serve as a guide for us all as we seek a path towards justice and equality.
All three volumes of March are available on Hoopla, for those whose libraries participate. You can also find physical copies of the books most anywhere books are sold. The books are available digitally through Amazon.