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.

Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.