Reviewed in the United States on August 10, 2019
TRIGGER WARNING: Animals. Man’s inhumanity to man. Please see the bottom of this review for details.
March is a graphic novel trilogy which tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of John Lewis, a civil rights leader and U.S. congressman. It is a meticulously detailed account. The books are simply named:
- Book One (2013)
- Book Two (2015)
- Book Three (2016)
SOME GENERAL REMARKS
The artwork in these books is black-and-white, with an emphasis on black. It seems like the illustrator is frequently using black space instead of white space on the page. If this is meant to be a social commentary or simply to illustrate the dark and difficult times, I do not know.
A fundamental problem I noticed is that sometimes the speech bubbles are too small to read. This does not happen often, and I think it is largely for dramatic effect. I was reading with my reading glasses, but still there were illegible words. I called my kids in. Same thing. But when I took a photo of one such speech bubble and expanded it, most of the words became legible! I did it again on a different photo, but the contents of those speech bubbles were gibberish; they were just there for dramatic effect to illustrate a violent crowd. Given that this is for effect and not an actual error, my 5-star rating remains.
As March is told largely from John Lewis's perspective, John Lewis is very much the hero of his own story. Still, I don't dare give such a stunning account of the fight for civil rights anything less than 5 stars.
The photos I chose to include in this review either spoke to me or illustrated some aspect of this review.
The first book covers John Lewis’s childhood and early years in the movement, largely told as a flashback to young constituents visiting his office on the morning of President Obama’s inauguration. We learn about Emmett Till and Brown vs. Board of Education - and the effect these had on young John Lewis. We watch as John Lewis meets Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. We follow him to college and participate in sit-ins at lunch counters. The book concludes with the successful integration of lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee.
There was one incident in the book which tickled my funny bone. John Lewis grew up on a farm and when it was time to plant, he was not permitted to go to school because his father required everyone’s assistance. So John Lewis would hide and then make a mad dash to the school bus, spend the day at school, then receive a scolding (but not any actual punishment) when he arrived back home. John Lewis insists that he had to take this path because it was a “life decision” he had made. As an onlooker and a parent, it occurs to me that his father may have set him on this particular path, making attending school appear to be a rebellious act. Furthermore, ditching farm work to attend school solidified the boy’s commitment to his own education. As a parent, I’m thinking bravo! Kudos to the dad - who incidentally could have driven to the school and pulled the boy out for the day but apparently never did.
The second book begins with efforts to integrate movie theaters in Nashville. From there, John Lewis goes on to become a Freedom Rider; discussion of that experience and the Freedom Riders in general takes up a significant portion of the book. After the briefest of detours into protesting for fair employment practices, John Lewis describes the splitting of the movement into two sections: direct action and voter registration.
At the age of 23, John Lewis is unexpectedly elected chairman of the important Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which thrusts him into the spotlight as part of the national leadership. He becomes one of the “Big Six”. Next the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is covered. John Lewis is the only surviving speaker of that March. I believe his entire speech is included in the graphic novel, while an earlier disputed draft is included in text form at the end of the book. By contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech is only alluded to, I suspect for copyright reasons. It is amusing to note that John Lewis and the other leaders were meeting with Congressional leaders when the March began and hence missed its start!
The book ends with the bombing of a church.
By far the longest of the three books, Book Three begins with the same church bombing we ended Book Two with. The focus of this book is squarely on the right to vote as voter registration of African-Americans is aggressively blocked throughout the South.
We accompany John Lewis on a 72-day trip to Africa where John Lewis learned the importance of Malcolm X to young revolutionaries on the continent. It is a weakness of the book that no context is given as to what is happening in Africa during those years, namely that country after country is throwing off the yolk of colonialism. While intense discussions of African history are clearly beyond the scope of the book, surely a page could have been devoted to those important happenings. It would have tied together the theme of how what was happening to Africans was connected to what was happening to African-Americans.
Another weakness is that only a page or two is devoted to the role of women in John Lewis's civil rights organization. The early to mid-1960s was a time of tremendous social upheaval in this country for multiple reasons. The sea change we witnessed in the role of women was an extremely significant outcome of this era. Again, I'm sure it was beyond the scope of the book, but it likely deserved more mention.
As always, the book focuses on John Lewis's efforts, but also touches on many other historical figures. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes across as perhaps less of a hero than we would expect; this might be unintentional. King missed a pivotal march, announcing that he would not be participating shortly before it was set to begin. Shortly thereafter, he started a march but then turned it around without giving prior notice to anyone.
Book Three culminates with the march from Selma to Montgomery, which began on March 21, 1965. Shortly thereafter, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law. With it, John Lewis ended his participation in the movement.
* * *
During the events depicted in these books, I was too young to be aware of them. I grew up in a lily white Western state. As a child in the 1960s, I recall a television commercial depicting a black child entreating us not to be racists. I was appalled. Why would there be an ad for that? I was quite indignant not only at the accusation of possible racism thrown my way but at the very idea that anyone would be prejudiced against a black child. I had never encountered that in my life; therefore, it did not exist. So ignorant.
Looking back over my subsequent 50 years, it is remarkable how little I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, college, and grad school. This trilogy definitely expanded my knowledge and gave me a much-needed education in these events.
TRIGGER WARNING: Given the subject matter of these graphic novels, there is not much cause to mention human-on-human violence; its presence should be obvious. In fact, the series opens with violence against the peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But you should be aware that in Book One on pages 20-35, John Lewis tells of his time tending to the chickens on his family farm. As you might guess, those chickens were not primarily there to be pets.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book which in no way influenced my review.