Book Review: March Trilogy Slipcase Edition by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
I had heard of March on Litsy, my current favorite bookish social media platform. People were posting pictures of various pages from the graphic novels and discussing Congressman John Lewis's incredible story.
I kept thinking I should buy this trilogy. But I do try to limit the number of physical books I buy.
And then in January Donald Trump tweeted. The Washington Post wrote "Rep. John Lewis's books sell out following Donald Trump's attacks."
And I couldn't buy March? I don't think so. I waited patiently for my Trilogy Slipcase Edition to arrive.
Even better, some fabulous people over at Litsy decided to read #MarchInMarch with anyone else who wanted to share their thoughts on this inspirational story of the only Civil Rights speaker from the 1963 March on Washington who is still alive.
This review covers all three books in the March trilogy. While I use a number of photos from the graphic novel, I focus mostly on the events from the Civil Rights Movement that people know. I don't consider retelling history to be spoilery. However, there are emotional aspects of this story that I do leave out for anyone who wants to experience the full trilogy as Congressman John Lewis has told his story.
Book One begins by setting the tone for the entire trilogy.
John Lewis is marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the day known as Bloody Sunday. He and everyone on the bridge are praying when they are attacked by the armed policemen.
The last images are Lewis's hands dragging across the pavement as he offers no resistance to his attackers. The image just blacks out implying that Lewis did as well.
After the inside title page featuring a beautiful sunrise seen from the Lincoln Memorial, Lewis shifts his story to January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day for President Barrack Obama. This shift in narration and consistent use of President Obama's historic Inauguration as a framing device in all three of the books periodically remind the reader that hope does exist.
Once Congressman Lewis arrives at his office on Capitol Hill he begins retelling his story to a few young children from his district.
Pike County Alabama is less than 90 miles from Selma. John Lewis grew up helping to work his family's farm, loving school, and preaching to the chickens he raised.
At age 11, Lewis travels to Buffalo with his Uncle Otis. The drive out of the deep South is harrowing. They bring baskets of food and rely on Otis' prior knowledge of places that allow African-Americans to buy gas and use the "colored" washrooms.
Once he gets to Buffalo, though, Lewis sees what the world may offer him. Interracial neighborhoods. Escalators. Bags of candy. City life.
Returning to Alabama is difficult for Lewis because now he knows. He knows that he doesn't have to accept the world as it is around him.
Lewis recalls loving his trips to the library. He even remembers the name of his librarian! Even though he couldn't live in Buffalo, he could connect with the African-American community outside of his own through magazines and books.
He also tells how he would skip his farm chores by hiding until the school bus would drive by. Then he'd dash out to meet the bus because he knew how important his education would be.
The use of the Inauguration Day frame story allows Lewis to fast forward to his college years in Nashville at the American Baptist Theological Seminary.
While he's in Nashville, he meets Jim Lawson and Diane Nash. Together they study non-violence. Their group grows and trains. They begin sit-ins at various segregated lunch counters around Nashville.
They also begin serving time for their arrests. They would not pay bail and allow the corrupt system to profit from injustice.
While Book One ends with the mayor desegregating the lunch counters in Nashville, the image of three angry white males watching two African-American men enter a diner crystallizes the tension around them.
Book Two picks up with the Nashville student group focusing on fast food restaurants and cafeterias. Once again the non-violent protestors are met with violence. They begin standing in line for movie theater tickets. When they are refused admittance, they get back in line. Violence escalates there as well.
Ultimately, Rev. Will Campbell came in to discuss the escalating violence. While Lewis respected Campbell's concerns, he advocated for marching. Over a two-page spread, Lewis repeats, "We're gonna march" three times.
While this response infuriates the older members of the group, Lewis finds himself steady with his beliefs. He continues to protest the segregation policies at the movie theaters and ends up in jail on his twenty-first birthday.
Then the story focuses on the summer of 1961 and the Freedom Rides. CORE, in keeping with Gandhi's non-violent practices, sent out letters explaining their plan for civil disobedience.
As I read Book Two of March, I also watched Freedom Riders on PBS' American Experience. This worthwhile two-hour documentary includes interview segments with John Lewis.
While I knew that Dr. King had spoken at the mass gathering at the First Baptist Church, I did not know that when the governor placed Montgomery under "qualified martial law" the Alabama National Guard kept the freedom riders and all people at the meeting trapped inside the church.
And the freedom riders kept pushing. These young college students would not back down to even the more traditional leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. They knew that they had to take a stand.
While the thought of going to Parchman terrified them, the idea of backing down was unthinkable.
Then in 1963 George Wallace becomes the 45th Governor of Alabama. While I despise him, I love the effectiveness of the panel below depicting his snarling face. The fear he must have instilled in people as they look up as the columns rise into the sky like they're elevating his hateful words.
"Bombingham" is the nickname earned. I wonder how locals perceive that city today.
Dr. King goes to jail and famously smuggles out his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which famously defends non-violence and calls upon everyone to break unjust laws as a matter of moral principle and responsibility.
And then the children begin marching. When I was in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum, my person and I saw the photo below. We both paused to comment on the keenly focused question on this girl's poster.
Her depiction within the graphic novel transcends the famous photograph from the exhibit. The wall plaque stated that the photo was taken just before police took their signs away. But the unending quest for human dignity? That wouldn't be stopped. How can these protests be anything but humiliating for Birmingham and the entire nation?
Book Two begins to close with the 1963 March on Washington.
Of particular interest to me was the controversy surrounding the speech John Lewis gave that day. The graphic novel depicts the speech he ultimately gave after much arguing and revising.
At the end of the book, you can read his draft of his original speech that he wanted to deliver. There are some serious changes in the word choices and tone.
Here's a piece of the speech he gave:
Here's the same segment from his original draft:
Book Three opens with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and ensuing violence on African-Americans in that community.
At this point in the movement, Diane Nash and John Lewis turn their attention to voting rights. In April 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is established to challenge the traditional all white Democratic Party delegation at the Democratic National Convention.
And the response from the South:
To prepare for the Freedom Summer, two groups, SNCC and CORE, began recruiting college students. These two groups made up of mostly younger non-traditional Civil Rights leaders knew that sending college students into Mississippi to educate African-American adults and encourage them to try to register to vote would be dangerous.
They screened applicants to find the truly dedicated:
During Freedom Summer, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered. Their bodies buried and hidden.
While Freedom Summer continued, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. While this law was useful in helping to desegregate American society, it did nothing to empower African-Americans to determine their own future with an unregulated right to vote.
Later in the summer Rockefeller and Goldwater battle for the Republican nomination.
And the traditional Democrats effectively block the Mississippi Freedom Party from representing anyone. Johnson receives the nomination and he goes on to win re-election in a landslide.
Here's a screenshot from 270toWin of Johnson's electoral win:
As Lewis points out, Johnson still lost the South.
Back in Selma, more and more citizens were lining up outside the courthouses waiting to register to vote.
At one point a third grade teacher and one of her students was arrested and jailed. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers were able to get everyone released that same day. But, as one of my Litsy friends sarcastically put it: You know you're on the right side of history when you're arresting third graders.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, and the death of another protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson, John Lewis decides that he must stand with the people of Selma and march.
Here the graphic novel shows John Lewis singing as he packs his backpack to march on Bloody Sunday, and then the story switches back to Inauguration Day for President Obama. As the President greets everyone at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building, John Lewis is overcome with emotion.
He asks President Obama to sign his invitation.
After Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Tuesday, President Johnson delivers a nationwide address about the events in Selma. Lewis characterizes the speech as "one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard an American president give on civil rights."
On March 21, 1965, John Lewis joins the major civil rights leaders of the time and together they march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery.
And finally the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is signed into law. The last few pages focus on Lewis's thoughts on the Civil Rights Movement and the immediate impact of the Inauguration of America's first African-American President. The sentiments on those pages brought tears to my eyes.
March should be required reading for every American, but most especially our ignorant 45th tweeter in chief. Trump wrote, "Congressman Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about election results. All talk, talk, talk - no actions or results. Sad!"
John Lewis embodies action and results. He is the march: body, mind, and spirit.