The second volume in John Lewis’ deeply felt memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, March (Top Shelf) follows the future congressman through the tempestuous early sixties when Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Where the first volume focused on his youth and growing into the movement, Book Two depicts the scary reality that non-violent protesters had to face in the Deep South. Nate Powell’s front cover, which visually contrasts the fire bombing of a bus load of freedom riders with Martin Luther King’s landmark speech at the March on Washington makes the point succinctly: this was a time when simply asking for decency and fairness was considered inflammatory. At a lunch counter sit-in, for example, the owner locks in protesters than turns on a fumigator (“At first,” Lewis writes. “I didn’t believe that man could’ve really left us there to die. Were we not human to him?) Going to a “Whites Only” showing of (ironically) “The Ten Commandments,” protesters get assaulted with billy clubs. And it grows worse.
How far we’ve moved from those days fifty years ago is perhaps a discussion for another time. Or maybe it isn’t. For interspersed within Lewis’ memories of the Jim Crow South are his recollections of attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a moment that movement veterans interpreted as a sign that their fight for voting rights and equal treatment under the law had happily borne fruit. Yet as events since that day have shown, the battle begun by Lewis and his peers in the 1960’s is far from finished.
Lewis, co-writing with congressional aide and comics scholar Andrew Aydin (who, one suspects, was the collaborator most attuned to fitting this material into a graphic novel format), recalls the formation of this non-violent movement: its key moments and leaders, most of which Lewis got to know personally. If occasionally that second aspect of the story becomes a bit text heavy (the most distinctly limned civil rights figures seem to the be the ones – like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X – who disagreed with SNCC’s non-violent approach), the moments that prove most memorable are the depicted atrocities committed by racist white Americans and such stalwarts of police brutality as Sheriff “Bull” Connor. A sequence set in the notorious Parchman Farm – where Lewis and other protesters served time for trying to use the White’s Only waiting area in a Jackson, Mississippi bus station – proves particularly harrowing.
Book Two begins to lift the reader out of these despairing scenes, however, by building to the march that brought us one of the most famous speeches in civil rights history – though not without providing some insight into the process of pre-speech editing that Lewis himself experienced at the hands of fellow movement members. To anyone who’s ever been involved in any level of political group work these pages will seem familiar, though Lewis knows enough to keep this scene from getting bogged down in the minutia of political strategizing.
As with the first volume, Nate Powell’s gray-toned art is effective in evoking the era and its people, growing shadowy and much darker during the books’ more intense moments. He’s the not-so-hidden player whose renderings provide the humanity that keep this book from being just a memory of a distant past and give it current resonance. Book Two recently received the Eisner Award for best reality-based work of the year, and to my eyes it deserves this accolade. It’s an object lesson in just how effective good graphic storytelling can be.