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The second volume of Rep. John Lewis’ autobiographical trilogy March is darker than the first one, both literally — artist Nate Powell fills many panels with almost unbroken blackness, as he depicts smoke, night and noxious fumes — and figuratively, as it shows human cruelty at its worst. Even in its lighter moments, Book Two shows the flaws as well as the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement. As this era recedes from living memory to history books, it’s in danger of dwindling to a series of inspirational images and iconic figures. Book Two of March is a bracing antidote to that.
March‘s first volume focused on Lewis’ youth and his involvement with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1959-1960, his first experience with nonviolent social action. In Nashville, the protestors were mostly students, their leaders were mostly religious, and they took the principle of nonviolence seriously. The refusal to answer violence with violence, whether verbal or physical, was integral to their actions. While there are violent moments in Book One, the story doesn’t dwell on them.
In Book Two, on the other hand, Lewis jumps right in with an attempted murder: The manager of a diner not only refuses to serve Lewis and a colleague, he sends his staff away, turns off the lights, turns on a fumigator spraying insecticide gas, and locks the door. The opposition has moved from harassment to deadly force, and while Lewis was rescued by firefighters (who must have been called by someone), it’s clear from the start that the stakes have been raised.
The next major protest was a dramatic one that caught the attention of the nation: the Freedom Rides. In 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Boynton v. Virginia, that segregation in interstate bus service and bus terminals was illegal. The ruling wasn’t immediately enforced, however, and James Farmer organized a group of black and white activists, including Lewis, who would ride the buses together and assert their rights. They informed both the bus companies and the press of what they were doing, and as the riders proceeded through the South, they were met with increasing hostility and violence at every stop. When the bus reached Anniston, Alabama, it was firebombed — but Lewis wasn’t on it, having taken a break from the ride to interview for a volunteer position with the American Friends Service Committee. The violence led Farmer to call off the rides, but Diane Nash, a Fisk University student who had been a leader of the lunch counter sit-ins, took over, saying, “We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead.” Lewis got back on the bus and headed to Birmingham with this second group.
Fifty years later, it’s difficult to fathom the violence that occurred during the Freedom Rides. In Birmingham, Police Chief Bull Conner gave the Ku Klux Klan a 15-minute head start before bringing his officers in. Powell doesn’t flinch from depicting the blows and their effects, and he breaks the crowd into individuals and the riot into a series of moments: A father eggs his son on, saying “git them eyes!” A group of Freedom Riders jump into a cab, but even in the midst of the melee, the black driver makes the white riders get out because it’s against the law for blacks and whites to ride together. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s assistant, John Seigenthaler, arrives on the scene and is immediately hit on the head with a baseball bat. The crowd converges on Lewis, shouting “Kill him!!” and someone brings a billy club down on his head. And then, suddenly, a policeman fires a shot into the air and breaks the spell, startling the mob and effectively ending the riot.
While the art is solid black and white, the narrative itself has some interesting shades of gray. In hindsight the Civil Rights movement looks like an unbroken march toward justice, but Lewis reminds us the situation was less clear at the time, and that even the leaders of the movement occasionally wavered. There’s a moment during the Freedom Rides when Kennedy asks Martin Luther King Jr. to stop the rides for a cooling-off period. King relays the request to Farmer and Nash, saying, “It is not without merit to say that the Freedom Ride has already made its point, and now should be called off,” but they insist on continuing. King doesn’t argue, but it’s a telling moment, made all the more so by Powell’s cinematic staging of the meeting, which pauses for a silent panel in which the three, and Lewis, just look at each other — or away — for a moment before swinging back into action. Later, after a dramatic scene where the civil rights supporters gather in a church, with an angry mob outside, the plans get under way to resume the rides — and King declines to participate, drawing scornful comments from the others. The next day, Farmer himself tries to dodge getting on the bus, but the others persuade him to join them. This is one of several moments in the book where we see the human side of the movement, and that’s a good thing; Lewis puts back a few of the rough edges that time has sanded off.
The sequences that follow are a good example of graphic storytelling at its best: The Freedom Riders are arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi, where they sing and taunt their guards in a series of exchanges that seem almost like comic relief after the tension and violence that preceded them. Powell weaves word balloons through the scenes, showing the prisoners turning the events themselves into a song, making a tight narrative that goes beyond anything mere words could convey. Tellingly, he depicts the action from both sides of the bars, with the protestors often out of sight or in shadow, the strains of the songs coming through the bars to break up the darkness, and the jailers growing increasingly frustrated as their prisoners simply refuse to give in. The abrupt release of the prisoners — someone posted bond on their behalf — seems anticlimactic, but Powell uses a full-page illustration of the Freedom Riders walking away from the prison as a way to transition to the next part of the story.
The final act of the book is about the March on Washington, and again, Lewis chooses to show real history by focusing as much on what went on backstage as on the march itself. He’s blunt about the fact that the members of SNCC were initially lukewarm about both the march, which they saw as coming from the less aggressive old guard of the movement, and President Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill, which they felt didn’t go far enough. In a meeting with Kennedy, the leaders of the march debate whether it should happen at all, and the organizers put Bayard Rustin, who did much of the actual work, into a deputy role because they fear that his homosexuality would be a liability (later, Sen. Strom Thurmond, with help from the FBI, outed Rustin in a speech on the Senate floor). On the eve and day of the march, there’s a huge argument about Lewis’ speech, and in a moment that really happened but could also be taken as a metaphor, the march started without the leaders.
The climax of the book is Lewis’ speech, and this is another moment that the graphic novel medium serves well. Powell breaks it into a stream of word balloons, allowing him to convey the rhythm of the speaker as well as the words and to intercut images of Lewis at the podium with the faces of the listeners and long shots of the crowd. It’s also a testimony to Powell’s skill, and his maturity as an artist, that these sequences not only flow so well but really seem to come to life. The risk with a book like this, which is based on much-photographed era, is that the illustrations will come off looking like drawings of photographs. Powell keeps the figures loose but solid and stages each scene like a movie director, using a variety of panel shapes and sizes, broad shots and tight focus, as it suits the story.
Lewis’ speech is still stirring 50 years later, but in most people’s minds it was eclipsed by the one that followed. The final speaker of the day was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the speech he gave was the most famous of his career, maybe even the most famous speech of the 20th century: the “I have a dream” speech.” Lewis and his collaborators make the curious decision not to include those words in the book, although they do paraphrase it in a single spread that shows King speaking; someone offstage says “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” That’s one of the few missteps in the book, and it’s an awkward one. On the one hand, it’s Lewis’ story, and he’s entitled to put the spotlight on his own speech, but to not quote the most famous line of the most famous speech given that day is so strange that it disrupts the narrative. The King family has famously guarded the copyright to broadcast versions of that speech, so perhaps the writers and editors were concerned about a rights issue, but it’s hard to believe that a single quotation would not fall under fair use. Whatever the reasoning, it’s an unfortunate choice.
While the speeches are the climax of the book, the story isn’t over. The first volume ended with a triumph that was tempered by conditions — the mayor of Nashville told a crowd of demonstrators that he felt the lunch counters should be desegregated, but then he hedged: “… that’s up to the store managers, of course.” The next page shows a group of black and white diners sitting together; the page that follows, though, shows Lewis and a friend getting the cold shoulder somewhere else. The fight was won, but the battle continued.
Book Two ends with an explosion, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The final words of the book are not the echoes of the speeches in Washington but a single voice crying out the names of two of the four girls killed in that explosion: “Denise? Addie?”
This is a good and valuable book. It has been more than 50 years since the Civil Rights movement began, and while race relations in this country are by no means perfect, the sort of apartheid depicted in these books is unimaginable to most Americans. We need to be reminded that this can happen, and that it could happen again. If there’s a flaw in the storytelling, and it’s a forgivable one, it’s that the villains lack depth. What sort of emotion would drive a man to encourage his child to claw someone’s eyes out? Why would a business owner close down his lunch counter rather than serve people of another color? Where does this come from? It’s not Lewis’ job to tell us, necessarily, but it’s important to think about it.
There is one clue: In a remarkable sequence, newly elected Gov. George Wallace gives a speech invoking freedom from tyranny, words that could have come from the civil rights activists, except that the cause he is so forcefully advocating is continued segregation. These words are echoed today in the argument that religious freedom should include the ability to discriminate against LGBTQ people or women.
One of the essential principles of the nonviolence that Lewis embraced was to respect your opponent as a human being. The people who attacked and abused Lewis and the other protestors were acting on their worst impulses, driven from deep wells of hate, but they were human nonetheless. Only once do we see a flicker of humanity: During the children’s protests in Birmingham, Alabama, when Bull Connor turned the fire hoses on a group of schoolchildren, the police seem stunned and hesitant. Ultimately, the success of the Civil Rights movement was a triumph of humanity over evil, precisely because incidents like that one, as well as the attacks on the Freedom Riders and the bombing of the church, drew nationwide attention. On the ground, however, when the attacks are going on, the characters are black and white, not in terms of skin color (there are plenty of white allies) but in terms of which side they are on. The danger in depicting the segregationists as uniformly evil is that it strips them of their humanity and makes them the Other — eliminating the danger that we could become like them.
That aside, this is a good and very important book, important because it’s not only about history but has much to say to the present-day reader as well. What shines through in the end, through the quarrels and the bombings and the beatings, is not just the determination of the civil rights activists but their determination to do things right. Their campaigns were carefully planned and always had a clear message. They did their homework. Students practicing nonviolent civil disobedience rehearsed beforehand so they would be able to react — or not react — appropriately. Protesters who were arrested were immediately replaced by another group of protestors. The Freedom Riders always included one rider who complied with the segregation laws, so he or she would not be arrested or attacked and could alert the leaders to what was going on. Even after the triumph of the March on Washington, the last page shows Bayard Rustin telling the leader, A. Philip Randolph, “I want you to see that here is not a piece of paper, or nay dirt or filth, or anything left here.” What matters, in the end, is not only what you do but how you go about it — well-intentioned but poorly executed protests can do your side more harm than good.
The first volume of March was a good book, but Book Two pushes us much further. It’s easy to think of the Civil Rights movement only in terms of its triumphs — the desegregation of the lunch counters, Rosa Parks getting back on the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to cheering throngs on a sunlit day in Washington, D.C. It’s harder to think of the struggles that went before, the evil that existed in people’s hearts and the strength it took to fight against it. In March, Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Aydin not only tell that story, they show how it was done. It’s not just history, it’s also a guidebook for those who would make history again. It’s not just a good book. It’s an essential book.