Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. A million times yes.
For anyone who has ever loved the Movement, John Lewis, Blackness, art, literature, or just a great story, this graphic novel is for you. 5 stars.
If you missed my commentary on the first book in the series, get yourself caught up.
You with me?
For me, there is nothing greater than hearing about the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of someone other than Martin. This is likely a very unpopular opinion but stay with me. Martin’s narrative has been distorted, martyr-ized, and gentrified to the point that his original message and beliefs have lost its power. Martin, like Malcolm, has been mythologized by popular culture, and in the same way we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we repeat “I Have A Dream” because its recitation dictates our Americanness.
In my opinion, we have to deconstruct these people, sort through the images that we have been force feed and digest the meaning, the true meaning. Recitation does not necessitate comprehension. Just because we know that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the third Monday of January because of his work in the Civil Rights Movement does not mean we understand the complexity of what he was accomplishing, the dangers he faced, and the magnitude problems he combated on a daily basis.
I, myself, am doing better at trying to really understand what the Civil Rights Movement was and what that moment meant. Thanks to a really bomb professor, I find it a lot easier to open my mind. And then, I found March.
This graphic novel is so important for so many different reasons.The first in the series, as I’ve said before, is one of a kind in Congressman John Lewis’ youthful innocence and dedication to an ideal, but the second brings life to several different iconic moments. Lewis describes the human dimension of the March on Washington. That, in itself, had more of an impact on me than descriptions of its magnitude. The Big Six were not just leaders of a movement; it was a symbiotic relationship. As much as they lead, the movement lead them. On page 159-160, Lewis narrates, “Then we learned that the March had started without us…There goes America, I thought.” Being a leader of this moment was not only about organizing, but being able to respond to a movement with its own life, its own rhythm as wild as the ocean’s.
John Lewis takes us through the solemnity with which the Freedom Riders took their stands in 1961. The horrible beatings, the abuses, and the cruelty of “Bull” Connor, the biggest bully in South. Despite the horrors, Mr. Lewis was extraordinarily blessed: by a stroke of luck, he narrowly missed being on the buses that were bombed. He was able to sit at meetings with some of the most important leaders of the day. But at his core, he was a humble man, a doer, and throughout the course of the graphic novel, you can tell that taking meetings was something he blanched away from, because he felt his place was at the sit-ins and nonviolent protests.
The flashbacks to the early 1960s are woven between another, much later memory of his: being at President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The warmth of this narrative, despite the freezing cold of the setting, gives the reader the feeling that Lewis is fueled by his actions in his youth that led to the moment he watches currently. It’s beautiful to read and see.
Lewis’ memoir pulls punches with astounding accuracy. From his description of Stokely Carmichael’s poor behavior to respectfully noting that Malcolm never seemed part of the movement, despite the weight he carried. (Which is why my professor likes to make sure we understand the difference between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. A few common points do not mean they create the same line.)
Interestingly enough, Lewis has no problems not only calling out some of the most powerful leaders of the moment, but also calls into question the role of Black Greek Life. Lewis recounts a memory at Fisk where he sees young Black fraternity men acting foolish in a moment where others their age were risking their lives for the freedom of all. While I have personal opinions about this, I’ll just let Mr. Lewis do the talking.
But even more powerful than his poignant criticism are the descriptions of the real movement. One such moment is an image of the Birmingham Children’s March, where a police officer bends down to face a little Black girl and asks her what it is that she wants.
She wants, of course, what any of us wanted: “F’eedom.” (p. 135)
The narrative of this graphic novel brings to life images that were previously stagnate for me. I was always good at history, but it never moved me, like it did for a lot of my friends. And as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I am moved by history, when it’s presented to me in a way that reaches me where I am. I respond to stories, pictures, and art. That feels more alive to me than speeches or an anthology of events.
What’s real to me is when John Lewis tells me about being dehumanized in jail, their singing, and the Mattress War. When people I’ve only read about in history books make cameos in his personal narrative, when Medgar Evers and Bob Moses really are household names at the time, I feel the importance of this history weighing down on me. I can see the evolution of a movement and the creation of a revolution, though that is not at all what Lewis is doing. He’s just telling his story.
Tell on, Mr. Lewis, tell on.