Review: March: Book Three

March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016.

Summary: The culmination of this three part work, focused on the movement to obtain voting rights in Alabama and Mississippi, the March on Birmingham, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Book Three of March begins with the SNCC decision to focus their efforts on voting rights in Mississippi and Alabama during the election year of 1964. John Lewis has already been working along those in Selma trying to register to vote, rebuffed each day by Sheriff Clark. Bob Moses and Al Lowenstein went to Mississippi, recruiting volunteers to teach Freedom schools, resulting in the death of three volunteers driving from the north.

Resistance arises not only in the violence of the south but also the political maneuverings of the north. The SNCC’s hope was to seat a black delegation from Mississippi at the Democratic Convention. Despite powerful testimony, especially that of Fannie Lou Hamer, they are rebuffed and seats are removed so they cannot participate. Johnson lost the south anyway but won the election. Somehow, if voting rights would happen, they would have to force his hand.

After a trip to Africa where he encounters Malcolm X for the last time, he returns to the people in Selma. Marches to the courthouse end in beatings and arrests, even when the city’s black teachers show up, toothbrushes in hand, prepared to go to jail. After repeated failures, the SNCC debates whether to march to Birmingham to protest for voting rights, joining other civil rights leaders. The SNCC decides they are out. John Lewis will go alone, representing only himself. We see Lewis in his trenchcoat and jail backpack, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the armed police blocking their way, the marchers kneeling to pray, and then the attack. Lewis was beaten senseless, believing he was seeing his own death.

King had not been present. While Lewis is in the hospital recovering from head injuries, King comes to Selma, leads a march and stops when confronted–and calls on them to turn around. Lewis was in the vanguard of “Bloody Sunday, King in front of “Turnaround Tuesday.” One senses the tension here. Lewis and others take the beatings, King gets the Nobel Prize. There was both admiration of his leadership and the ways he had demonstrated courage, and resentments that he avoided the most violent confrontations.

Subsequent hearings exposed the brutal violence and Governor Wallace’s support. Johnson refuses to placate him and initiates the legislation to pass a voting rights act with one of the most inspiring speeches Lewis had ever heard. The injunction to prevent the marchers to go to Birmingham was lifted, and the march took place. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, striking down all the obstructive maneuvers of the Jim Crow south.

John Lewis kept marching until this year (2020). He exemplified a movement determined to fight without violence or weapons, but with the willingness to put his body on the line, suffering indignities to press for the dignity of his people. He exemplified the unflinching resolve to “march!” when others shrunk back, and the courageous quality of a leader who would not ask others to do what he would not do himself. These volumes capture not only the violence but the man–resolved and yet human–capable of being discouraged, but never giving in. John Lewis left a great gift in leaving this narrative that throbs with his passion, a rendering of history by one who helped make that history.

My reviews of the other volumes in this set:

https://bobonbooks.com/2020/11/17/review-march-book-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2020/11/25/review-march-book-two

Review: March: Book Two

March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2015.

Summary: The second part of this graphic non-fiction narrative of the Civil Rights movement from the experiences of further sit-ins and marches to the Freedom Rides, the children’s marches, and the March on Washington.

At the beginning of Book Two of March, John Lewis and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are seeking to extend the gains they made in desegregating downtown Nashville lunch counters. They go to other restaurants and movie theaters, being met again and again with refusals, violence, and prison.

Then the first Freedom Rides of 1961 were organized. The Supreme Court had overturned segregation on buses and bus facilities. But the question was whether southern authorities would uphold or resist the decision. The Council on Racial Equality (CORE) invited John to join the efforts to test this decision. Groups of riders leave on buses from Washington, DC to Louisiana. March graphically chronicles the violence and harassment they faced, including the bus John would have been on were it not for a call back to Philadelphia. He had planned to rejoin the bus. He never got a chance. It was firebombed. Later, he is sent to Parchman farm, a former plantation and subjected to all its indignities. During one of the attacks, government agent John Siegenthaler is badly hurt when he tries to intervene.

The account then turns to the confrontation between Birmingham’s children and Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. One senses in the drawings the horror and the terror of the children who face this onslaught, displayed on televisions across the country. This led to a breakthrough with the city taking steps to desegregate. But victories are punctuated with tragic setbacks like the murder of Medgar Evers.

At his time, John was called to an emergency meeting of SNCC in Atlanta, elected as its chairman, and representative among national civil rights (the Big Six) leaders in the March on Washington. The final part of the book narrates the controversy over Lewis’s hard-hitting speech draft, the discussions and edits to tone him down and his unwillingness to compromise. Finally he accedes to Philip Randolph but still gives the hardest hitting speech of the day, overshadowed by King’s “I have a dream.” The book depicts the reception afterwards at the White House and the cool response Lewis received from Kennedy: “I heard your speech.”

As in Book One, the narrative is interleaved with the inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama including the embrace of the two and the juxtaposition of two moments at opposite ends of the Washington Mall. These inspiring moments are in turn juxtaposed with the terrible violence and hatred Lewis and so many faced.

The strength of this graphic non-fiction is that it captures both the glimpses of the dream and the awful realities of racial hatred. The drawings bring out both the noble and the ignoble. At the same time, the rendering of persons is rough, often only vaguely recognizable as the person being rendered. Nevertheless, the power of graphic portrayals is akin to the original images displayed on our televisions. The violence is set amid the noble aspirations of young marchers, some still children. The moral claim of the marchers stands in stark contrast to the brutal actions of whites who can only resort to force and distortion of the law to resist what is just. This is an effective way to teach this history!

Review: March, Book One

March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (co-author), Nate Powell (artist). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction biography of John Lewis. Book One focuses on his youth, the contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed the course of his life, and his early efforts in the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville.

We lost one of the last great civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s with the death of Congressman John Lewis this past July. Jon Meacham recently published His Truth is Marching On on the life of John Lewis (review). In this graphic non-fiction set of three books, we hear from John Lewis himself.

Book One begins, after the scene of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the brutal beating of Lewis, on January 20, 2009, the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Lewis makes his way to his congressional office, preparing for his procession and seating to witness the swearing in of the first Black president. A family from Atlanta stops into his office to see the office of this famous civil rights pioneer. They receive far more, as they meet John Lewis, who narrates the course of his life.

He begins with life on his parent’s farm in Pike County Alabama, his early religious awakening and his “ministry” with his chickens. He describes the trip north with his Uncle Otis, and his discovery that racial segregation wasn’t the same in the north. He describes his passion for education, first encounters with the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr on the radio, his opportunity to go to seminary, and discovery of the social gospel. This led to his decision to transfer to Troy State and his first meeting with Dr. King.

The next stage in his development was his training with James Lawson in the practice of non-violent resistance. He describes the workshops and the verbal and physical assaults to see if any would break under the stress. The graphic depiction of this training, and the supplement practice of that discipline helps one grasp in a new way the costliness and courage of the non-violent way. Be sure to read the instructions given every volunteer on page 97.

The beginning of their activism was to press for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters. The refusals, the abuse, the beatings, and the refusal of the police to intervene are all shown. Then the arrests are followed by jail, court hearings, refusals to pay fine, and more jail. The book ends with the confrontation at city hall and the mayor’s agreement to allow the lunch counters to integrate.

Lewis represented the daring edge of the civil rights movement, refusing to heed older leading lights like Thurgood Marshall, being willing to risk life and limb to continue to non-violently protest segregation. This leads to formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) with Lewis in leadership.

One comes away from reading this appreciating the deep spirituality, discipline, resolve and courage of Lewis and so many of those who marched, sat at counters, and shared beatings and jail cells with him. One also grasps the power of their courage and nonviolent resistance to unmask the dehumanizing character of racism-a story Lewis wants to pass to the next generation listening in his office.