Book Review - Congressman John Lewis readies ‘March’ sequel

Atlanta civil rights icon wants to see his graphic novel in every American school and library

Longtime Atlanta Congressman John Lewis had high expectations for March: Book One, but he didn’t necessarily think a graphic novel memoir based on his role in the Civil Rights Movement would find a widespread audience.

Since August 2013, the comic book’s reception has surprised the 74-year-old representative, his co-author and congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell. The 128-page graphic novel, the first book of the March trilogy, debuted atop the New York Times’ graphic books best sellers list, made its Comic-Con debut, and is already nearing a fourth printing.

“I’ve been more than gratified and, to some great delight, surprised by the unbelievable response we’ve received from the first book,” Lewis says. And Aydin, who wrote his college dissertation on “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a 1950s comic book that helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement, also didn’t anticipate that March: Book One “would have reached the height that it did so quickly.”

Last week, nearly one year after the first book’s release, March publisher Top Shelf Productions announced details about the trilogy’s second installment, March: Book Two, which is scheduled for release in early 2015. The congressman says the forthcoming graphic novel starts in 1960. Lewis, who at the time was 20 years old, played an important role alongside activists James Lawson, Diane Nash, and C.T. Vivian during the Nashville sit-in campaign that eventually led to the city’s restaurant desegregation.

The Nashville campaign is one of those parts of history that isn’t studied quite as much,” Aydin says. “That’s important to us to highlight some of those moments to show the depths of the protests that went on. It ties back into the idea of the Civil Rights Movement conveying a very simple message, yet being a very complex undertaking.”

From there, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell chronicle the young activist’s involvement with the Freedom Rides, his 37-day imprisonment at Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi, and the Birmingham campaign. Looking back at his experiences, the congressman considers the Freedom Rides to be the “untold story” of the Civil Rights Movement.

“The Freedom Rides were a group of young people, and people not so young, who believed,” Lewis says. “The original riders, who left Nashville, Tenn., black and white, were committed to give themselves. They accepted nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, and some people believed there was a possibility that they could be beaten or even die on that ride. We were ready to give everything we had.”

March: Book Two also looks back at the March on Washington in August 1963. Lewis, who was the youngest person to speak in front of the 250,000-person audience, shared the stage with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on the day he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite the event’s importance, Lewis and Aydin felt it would be more appropriate for the sequel to end with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which occurred the following month, to portray the realities of the enduring civil rights struggle well beyond King’s most iconic moment.

The March was a high point in organizing, but not necessarily a high point in concrete accomplishments,” Aydin says. “Looking at it in the context of the Birmingham bombing less than three weeks later, hopefully it’ll highlight to readers that the response, being terrorism, came fast.” Aydin and Lewis have already finished March: Book Two’s script, following an intense process that included both in-depth interviews and academic research. Powell, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., is currently inking the graphic novel’s pages. Once he’s finished, the three collaborators will make their final edits before sending the comic book to be printed. Upon release, the graphic novel will be available in softcover ($19.95), hardcover ($29.95), and limited edition signed and numbered hardcover ($49.95).

Both co-authors hope that the trilogy’s success carries over into classrooms. Teachers have already taught the first graphic novel to thousands of students in about 30 different states, Aydin says. Given March: Book One’s initial success, Aydin has a new and bigger goal for the trilogy: He wants to see a copy of March placed in every school and library across the nation. Lewis, who says many people in other countries know more about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement than Americans do, believes that spreading the book remains of the utmost importance in his efforts to help preserve the Civil Rights Movement’s history for future generations.

“It is my hope and my wish and my prayer that students, young people, non-students, and people not-so-young have a better understanding of what happened and how it happened,” Lewis says. “I want them to become as informed as many of the young people in other parts of the world.”