Title: March, vols 1-3
Authors: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Rating: 5 out of 5 (the entire set)
How I got a copy: I purchased the slipcase set from Indigo
Today is John Lewis’s birthday. Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.
There’s a perverse symmetry in that — that two leading figures of Civil Rights and African American liberation should have their lives bookended by this date.
John Lewis is still alive. Of the prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, he’s the only one left. He shook hands with JFK. He was colleagues with Martin Luther King Jr. He helped lead the march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. He’s been arrested, beaten, spat on, and denied vindications and liberties more times than I can count. He’s represented his congressional district in Georgia for 30 years. By any meaningful sense of the term, John Lewis is a living legend.
Which means that it’s a damn shame that I, as a Canadian, only recently heard about him in great detail when, last month, he announced that he would refuse to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration.
As a result, his books flew off the shelves. I followed suit and ordered a copy of his March trilogy, a series of graphic novels about his life. I spent the whole past weekend reading them, and only just finished them this evening.
The March trilogy details the life of John Lewis from his childhood on a sharecropping farm in Alabama through to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and 60s. He was an instrumental member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a child, he was committed to his schoolwork and his religious study, but also aware of the hypocrasies of the segregated school system in which he was taught.
When Martin Luther King Jr first came to his attention in 1955, he immediately saw the value of King’s form of social gospel, and learned more about non-violent activist techniques. He was an architect of them in his own right, helping to coordinate lunch counter sit-ins. As time progressed, his work with the SNCC led to him being considered one of the chief movers of the Civil Rights movement.
The March trilogy shuttles back and forth between Lewis’s memories of the past as an activist and the present day – said present day being January 20th, 2009, the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The series ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
In light of the struggles and violence that Civil Rights protesters faced, the fact that the US elected Barack Obama is a signal achievement. It’s amazing to think that it took just over 40 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act for such a thing to occur, after years — centuries — of disenfranchisement.
When Obama started office in 2009, the Voting Rights Act still ensured that marginalized communities across the country had the right to vote. However, in 2013, key provisions of the act were struck down by the Supreme Court. Voting restrictions have popped up like mushrooms in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
As someone viewing all this from the outside — as someone who knew only the barest outlines of the Civil Rights movement — the brutality that Civil Rights protesters met with as they struggled to gain the unfettered ability to vote is astonishing. But it’s disheartening to realize that we haven’t really improved that much in the interim, despite advances in legislative protections.
We still need to be reminded daily that black lives matter, even though this should be a given in our society. Black people still face an increased risk of incarceration or death at the hand of police departments. Looking at how much further we have yet to go, despite the lifelong efforts of Lewis and his political descendants, it’s a shame to see how quickly such changes have been rolled back after it took years of monumental, bloody effort to ensure they ocurred in the first place.
It’s a privilege to be able to hold this set of books, a privilege that the lessons within are being presented to a new (perhaps more complacent?) generation in a format that is both compelling and easy to absorb. On a personal level, I found it really interesting to see the nitty, day-to-day work involved in organizing a protest, the calculation and strategy involved in doing test efforts to determine what actions would have the most impact. The March trilogy is essential as both a historical primer and as an introduction to the art of successful resistance.