August 13, 2020Books
Review - MARCH Book One
By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
When Congressman John Lewis died on July 17th, 2020, the loss felt immeasurable. President Obama said in the closing lines of his eulogy: “God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.” The more you learn about John Lewis, the more you come to realize what a gift he was to us. That is why the existence of MARCH (Volumes 1-3) is such a precious treasure. The life of John Lewis is available to explore, for readers of all ages, through the graphic novels he published just seven years ago. Even if you're familiar with the role John Lewis played in the civil rights movement, there's no doubt you'll learn something new about him and the "good trouble" he made in the 60s and beyond.
MARCH Book One, spans the years of Lewis’ childhood through the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. It is filled with illuminating and endearing details - like why he kept so many chicken figurines in his congressional office, that growing up in Alabama he and his siblings called the Sears Catalog their “wish book” and how he was 11 when he rode an escalator for the first time. It also efficiently demonstrates how Lewis’ worldview was formed through the social awakening he experienced, starting with his first trip North with an uncle in 1951. They had to plan that trip with the precision of a delicate surgery - packing food to eat throughout the southern states since no restaurants would serve them. Later he was thrilled to start taking the bus to school, being an eager and devoted learner. But he was dismayed to realize the differences in the schools he as a Black boy attended compared to those for the white children. He continued to become more politically and socially aware when in 1955 he heard a sermon on the radio by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I felt like he was preaching directly to me.” He became inspired to do more and more to support what Dr. King called “the social gospel”.
Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge
One of the best things about living in Washington DC is the access we have to some of the most inspiring speakers. I got to see John Lewis talk about MARCH at the Newseum (now closed) back in 2013. I just watched that event again as Lewis recounted stories that he had clearly told again and again through the years. It’s these same stories that are depicted in MARCH. Reading the book feels as close as we might get to sitting with the Congressman himself, listening to him talk about his remarkable life. And it makes me appreciate how perfect the graphic novel format is for telling John Lewis’ story. Because relying on only words, it would have been much more difficult to portray what feels so central to this towering historical figure - his genuine warmth and kindness, his curiosity and optimism, his determination and perseverance.
Nate Powell's wonderful drawings are in black and white, and can combine just a few lines of text with one image to show us much more than a page in a traditional biography might. For example, while Lewis was confused and disappointed by how dilapidated his bus and school were, that in no way dampened his enthusiasm for learning. This is illustrated in the novel by a frame showing Lewis launching himself from the bus toward school at a run. When he visits a big city (Buffalo, NY) for the first time, the page is filled with a wide-eyed Lewis looking out the car window at a cluster of high rises surrounding the words “I was not disappointed”. Glimpses of newspaper headlines bring us along Lewis’ journey to political awareness and activism. The depiction of Lewis’ view of Dr. King behind his desk at their first meeting conveys the both the trepidation and the thrill of meeting his hero. And the drawings of the lunch counter sit-ins don’t flinch from the unspeakable cruelty and violence Lewis and his compatriots endured as they practiced the principles of non-violent protest.
Lewis mentions another comic book, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a pacifist group) called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. It is this book that inspired one of the North Carolina A&T freshmen who protested segregation at the lunch counter in a Greensboro Woolworth's. Today, as we see a whole new generation of social activists finding their voice and fighting for racial justice, I think MARCH can be similarly galvanizing. It’s about what becomes a vast movement, but it’s also about just one person who wanted to do more and then did... for sixty years.
Finally, as if I wasn’t already pre-disposed to lionize John Lewis, in MARCH I learned he loved going to the library (me toooooooooo!) He mentions his school librarian by name (Coreen Harvey) and quotes her as saying “My dear children, READ. Read EVERYTHING.” I will echo Ms. Harvey and add - read MARCH (also VOTE).
Content Warning for MARCH Book One - use of racial epithets, depiction of racial violence.
The oversized version of MARCH Book One (about the size of a magazine) is available here on Bookshop. The standard sized version (about the size of a hardcover) is on backorder at Bookshop, but it's available at a great indie bookstore here in DC, Mahogany Books. Click here to order from them.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.