October 29, 2020Books
Review - MARCH Book Two
By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
MARCH, Book One, covered the first two decades of John Lewis' life - from 1940-1960. MARCH, Book Two, follows his story for just two years, focusing primarily on the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the March on Washington in 1963. As we prepare for the US election next week, reading this graphic novel can serve as a powerful reminder that democracy is fragile and needs constant care, feeding and vigilance. After seeing everything that John Lewis and his fellow protestors endured during just two years of the civil rights movement, the least the rest of us can do is vote.
I recommended MARCH, Book One, shortly after John Lewis passed away. It reads as part childhood memoir, part political awakening, part primer for activism. I confess, MARCH, Book Two, is harder to follow. It felt almost chaotic a great deal of the time but I wonder, maybe that's the point. The times were confusing and chaotic and violent. I felt uncomfortable trying to understand everything that was happening, which is only a fraction of the confusion and dismay that must have been suffered daily by those who lived through it. This is a book that requires careful reading and re-reading in order to fully process everything that is portrayed. But it is worth our full attention, to honor John Lewis and his colleagues for the enormous risks they took and sacrifices they made.
One of the things I appreciated so much about Book One was how much more story could be told within the images of Nate Powell, rather than just with lines of text. And that's still true of Book Two. There's one moment early on that reveals that John Lewis' true superpower was an unrelenting positive attitude. He's describing the efforts to desegregate fast food restaurants, after the success of the lunch counter sit-ins that were covered in Book One. The page is almost a split screen - his "voiceover" narrates the recent election of John F. Kennedy, with the drawings showing Lewis and his friends politely requesting service while the waitress throws a bucket of water at them. In the most powerful cell of the page from left to right:
Lewis states he doesn't know what a Kennedy presidency will mean for African-Americans.
We see the waitress dumping a box of powdered detergent over the heads of Lewis and his friends.
He ends his narration with "But overall I was optimistic."
It's a bit of ironic humor in a moment of abuse and degradation, but the more you read of and from John Lewis, you know that even in the face of such hostility, his optimism is genuine. A few months later he visits DC for the first time and is amazed by all he sees. He's also excited to eat at a Chinese restaurant with friends "I had never actually EATEN at a restaurant before in my life. The only other times I had stepped foot in one had been part of a protest." I love how Lewis finds moments of joy and wonder to share from his story.
I also noticed how MARCH, Book Two, makes us think a bit different about comic book conventions, like the "POW" "BLAMMO" thought bubbles that are usually used to indicate superheroes are fighting, which somehow make the stakes seem lower. In MARCH, Powell punctuates images of white counter-protestors attacking Lewis and his non-violent partners with words like "Wham" "Krump" "Crash". It really made me reflect on how often brutality is played as entertainment, and that juxtaposition is particularly stark here. The violence is terrifying, not noble. So I'm especially appreciative of the decision to illustrate the novels in black and white. There is much more anger and hatred depicted in this volume of the story, and the absence of color gives the book an appropriate gravity.
Efforts to desegregate lunch counters and fast food restaurants led to similar work with segregated movie theaters. But that was all a prelude of sorts for John Lewis, who would end up applying to be a part of the Freedom Rides. These acts were designed to "test" the Supreme Court decision of Boynton v Virginia, which outlawed segregation and racial discrimination on buses and in bus terminals. In his application he wrote "This is the most important decision in my life - to decide to give up ALL if necessary for the Freedom Ride, that justice and freedom might come to the deep South." And Lewis did have to give up a lot - there were regular attacks on the Riders who were often arrested (Lewis spent his 21st birthday in jail), and the buses themselves were vandalized and ultimately firebombed. But Lewis and other members of the movement refused to give up, and kept re-boarding buses driving deeper and deeper South. Some of them suffered catastrophic injuries, and they all updated their wills before they even began to ride. I was continually stunned by the resolve of Lewis and his compatriots - especially because even within their movement and from their allies there were opposing points of view as to how to proceed. Both Kennedys (President John and Attorney General Robert) in various ways asked for Lewis, Dr. King, and other leaders to "be patient" or "cool off", often citing the desire for their safety. But as Lewis would say in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963 "We do NOT want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired."
The lion's share of Book Two is dedicated to the Freedom Rides, but the last few pages cover the historic March on Washington in 1963. John Lewis was the sixth speaker, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was the eighth and final presenter, that August 28. Lewis describes the power of those moments "Dr. King made plain all our hopes, our aspirations...Everything we sought through the beatings and the blood, through the triumphs and failures. Everything we dared to imagine about a new America, a better America." These two pages are completely black, except for a circle of white surrounding Dr. King at the podium, raising his hands to the heavens and saying:
"In which each of God's children can live in a society that makes LOVE its highest virtue." It's a deeply powerful and inspiring rendering of one of the most important moments in our nation's history.
That makes it all the more heartbreaking when the story continues on September 15, just a few weeks later, when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama explodes. This is the end of Book Two, and will lead us to the March on Selma in Book Three.
It's hard to stay hopeful when you see how determined bigotry can be. But though I felt despair reading this chapter of John Lewis' story, I was reminded that despite all he had seen in his life, and all he suffered, he still dedicated his life to service and lived it with joy. This clip from 2018 sums it up pretty well. If he could remain full of love and resolve, then I owe it to him to try my hardest to do the same. I hope you'll all vote!
Content Warning for MARCH, Book Two - use of racial epithets, depiction of racial violence.
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