The first book in a graphic novel trilogy by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, March (Top Shelf Productions) is a well-wrought personal account of the early days of the movement. It opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody moment in civil rights history wherein 600 peaceful demonstrators were violently attacked by Alabama state troopers under the orders of then-governor George Wallace – then moves to the twenty-first century with congressman Lewis getting ready to attend the inauguration of President Obama. These two contrasting moments serve to frame the trilogy, as Lewis tells of his childhood in Pike County, Alabama, to a pair of young boys brought to his office.
Young Lewis had dreams of becoming a preacher, and spent his days on his parents’ tenant farm giving sermons to the chickens he fed, but a trip to Buffalo, New York, with a teacher uncle who “knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms” provided a glimpse of a world quite different from the fiercely segregated south of the 1950’s. On his return home, he grew frustrated with his local ministers’ seeming unwillingness to address racial injustice in their sermons – until he heard a radio sermon from a young Atlanta preacher named Martin Luther King. The moment brought the idea of “social gospel” into focus for the young boy and ultimately led to his involvement in the civil rights movement.
Lewis got to first meet Dr. King as a young high schooler considering enrolling at the then-segregated Troy State, but it was a young graduate divinity student, Jim Lawson, who had an even larger impact on his future direction. Lawson was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to pacifist principles, which had even published a comic book entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, espousing the idea of passive resistance. Lawson conducted workshops training students in the ways of pacifism and was a major positive influence on the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. March depicts the workshops – which included role plays where attendees heaped verbal and physical abuse on each other – used to steel protestors against the very real threats that they would be receiving once they actually got out in public. As the book makes clear, this was scary business and young activists like Lewis needed to have self-discipline.
Book One depicts the first big public protests of the civil rights movement: the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, protesting downtown department stores in Nashville that refused to serve black or inter-racial groups of patrons. Lewis and his collaborators (co-scripter Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell) depict just how startling and more than a little frightening those non-violent protests were for both black and white southerners. The sit-ins were simple events: protestors would enter a department store, buy something to establish that they were paying customers, then move over to the lunch counter and ask to be served; when they were refused service, they would quietly sit until the end of the day then leave. As the sit-ins grew, they drew violent reaction from “the rough element in the white community,” though the only ones to be arrested were the pacifist protestors.
The first volume ends with the mayor of Nashville’s soft capitulation to the protestors, though we still have five years to go before “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
As a reminder of a hard and shameful piece of American history, March is an effective piece of graphic storytelling. Powell’s expressive gray-toned art beautifully captures the simple moments of boyhood and the grim realities of racism. (We’re shown, for instance, the beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose killers were acquitted by a southern jury.) If the insertion of two young boys as dutiful audience at the book’s beginning seems an overly obvious storytelling device, the story itself is one that needs to be retold and remembered – if only to counter those who’d like to gloss over those not-so-idyllic days.