John Lewis. He speaks, I listen. Congressman Lewis is one of those rare figures for me in the public realm who command a moral high road and a sense of gravitas. He came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to occupy a space of integrity and values that I believe more of our public officials should occupy.
So when I learned in a podcast that the third book in his graphic novel trilogy was being published, I was intrigued. How did I not know of this trilogy? What bits of his life story would be highlighted in visual form?
I started at the beginning, with Book One in the March trilogy. I was hooked. I’m not a graphic novel fan girl. I frankly am not hip to the graphic novel genre and might raise hackles by my assumption born out of ignorance that the graphic novel developed in parallel with or from comic books and Japanese manga. Clearly, they are different but share the same storytelling modus operandi: tell stories through a combination of words and images.
Graphic novels seem to be picture books for adults, a form of art that brings words more to life by showing scenes juxtaposed in ways that highlight the words or illuminate bits of a story that remain unspoken. What was the nonviolent confrontation with police and angry mobs like for the people who occupied lunch counters in the early 1960s? Words can only go so far to describe it, but illustrations that show the struggle against peaceful demonstrators can and do reveal a deeper experiential story of what it was like.
March: Book One uses the storytelling vehicle of a woman with two young boys visiting John Lewis at his congressional office. From their questions and interest in his life, we are privy to key bits in his life. The story starts with John Lewis’s childhood, specifically his desire to be a preacher and his love of the chickens that he raised (and how the two intersected—a delight to me who never grew out of my childhood love of silliness). The book continues to describe defining moments in his life, his growth towards adulthood, and his participation in the civil rights movement.
An important moment in his childhood was when an uncle took him on a road trip north to Buffalo, New York. John’s world suddenly expanded in a massive way. He saw a different way for blacks and whites to exist—as neighbors. While surely not an idyllic place in terms of race relations, Buffalo offered a stark contrast to what he was experiencing growing up in the South.
Other important moments in his life unfold: preaching as a teenager, meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., attending college, encountering Jim Lawson and the burgeoning nonviolence movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins, and becoming a part of SNCC. The common thread through all of these events was his drive towards social justice, the lynchpin for him even today.
March is wonderfully done—both the storyline and the illustrations. The combination of the words with images drives home the message of social justice. In a time when one would hope that March is relevant as a history of who we were and what our country went through, March is also relevant today as a reminder of who we are, what our values are, and the importance of social justice.
In light of recent events, March can be a depressing realization that the struggle for social justice is being swamped by the waves of bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny gripping the nation. It can also be a rallying cry: if the darkness of social injustice could be rolled back before, then it can be again.
To understand the present and the future, you need to revisit the past. People forget the lessons of the past, and history tends to repeat itself, fueled by those ignorant of—or willfully disregarding—the past. Those active in the 1960s may in some way see today as the same struggle, or an entirely new incarnation of the struggle. The struggle for social justice, John Lewis’s raison d’etre, continues.
In March, I learned of another graphic novel that had profound implications: the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which inspired the activists of the 1960s. Who might March inspire and what will be the outcome of that inspiration?