Say what you will about our present president’s propensity for going on the Tweet attack against anyone he thinks his enemy, but he definitely did John Lewis a favor when he started slamming the Georgia representative. Thanks to the president’s online attack, sales on Lewis’ graphic novel trilogy, March (Top Shelf Productions), have soared. Whether he meant to or not, Donald Trump did his critic a solid.
After previously reviewing volumes one and two – and getting into its weighty concluding entry – I’d have to state yes, March is a wonderfully crafted retelling of a major part of contemporary U.S. history: a compelling look at the struggles of a people to obtain the simple right to vote in a country that wasn’t fully sure they deserved it.
After the first book’s opening with a glimpse at a seminal moment in civil rights history – the thuggish assault on movement protestors at the Raymond Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama that resulted in Lewis’ hospitalization – volume three gives us a full-blown recreation of that Bloody Sunday. As the movement to get the vote gathers momentum and attention, the pushback grows even more intense and violent.
First moment we see in the concluding book is the fire-bombing of a Black Baptist church in Birmingham which resulted in the death of four school girls. This is followed by the murder of three civil rights workers, Schwermer, Goodman and Cheney, who are last seen in the custody of Mississippi police – and there are more to come: the shooting of Black army vet Jimmy Lee Jackson, the brutal beating of three Unitarian ministers who happen near a notorious Klan hangout, and ongoing attacks on churches and freedom schools. These provide many of the book’s most powerful storytelling images.
The rest of the book turns on Lewis and his peers’ attempts to get a meaningful voting rights bill passed in a time when even liberal Democratic politicos were wary of alienating their constituency. In the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was justifiably worried about losing the Dixiecrat vote in his first race for the full presidency. From his perspective, it didn’t benefit him politically to appear overly supportive of the Right to Vote movement. (Though he would win the presidency, Johnson’s wariness ultimately proved prescient as Richard Nixon would use the Southern Strategy four years later to woo civil rights loathing Dems into the Republican fold.)
Lewis and his collaborators, co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, vividly depict the behind-the-scenes arguments and political strategizing that led to the ultimate passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. If these sequences aren’t as dramatically strong as the more violent ones, they serve to delineate the thoughtfulness and intentionality behind this non-violent political movement.
With his group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee gaining more attention, young Lewis meets a number of famous and infamous people: politicians like LBJ and notoriously racist sheriff Bull Connor, movement figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and liberal celebrities among them. That last provides an amusing anecdote when Lewis misses an opportunity to make a move on Shirley Maclaine at an after-hours party – which also works as a refutation to the line that the movement was a hotbed of horny misbehavior. It’s with Lewis’ meeting with then President Johnson near the trilogy’s conclusion, though, that we really see behind the curtain of political power brokering.
Nate Powell’s black-and-white artwork continues to be a power player in this trilogy, not an easy task in a series that frequently relies on pages of talking heads. Breathing humanity into personalities otherwise blurred by the passage of time, it succeeds in its basic intent. In an era where concerted efforts continue to be made to roll back the very real progress of the Voting Rights Act, Lewis’s graphic memoir still retains an unfortunate currency.