Books - ‘March’ sequel is unapologetically cool

Congressman John Lewis’ graphic novel trilogy adds new chapter

Powerful, poignant, innovative, and necessary are the words that immediately come to mind after reading the second installment in congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March: Book Two, co-authored by Andrew Aydin. But mostly, it’s just plain cool.

Picking up on the cusp of the Freedom Rides and chronicling the violence, fear, trepidation, and passion that fueled the protests, Lewis offers an uncensored, unapologetic frontline view of the events. March isn’t just an alluring way to introduce an often forgotten or glossed-over part of American history (though it definitely is that too), but a real glimpse into the inner workings of the organizations behind the movement and the personalities that shaped those history-changing networks.

Throughout March, Lewis delivers the facts as he lived them, his engaging narrative brought to life by Nate Powell’s staunchly detailed drawings. Over the course of the book, Lewis goes from being a particularly vocal member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to its chairman in the course of approximately three years. He skillfully steers readers through the choppy waters of America’s scarred history with an unblinking eye, and more significantly, he doesn’t rely on cheesy dialogue or rhetoric to do it.

So yes, this is the story of a Civil Rights Movement icon, but mostly it’s a story of a young man who lived through a particularly extraordinary time and, along with a group of otherwise ordinary men and women, changed the course of history. Actually, it’s Lewis’ practical insights that make this story so relatable and compelling. His humanness and the conscious decision he made as such a young man to be brave, remain unmoved, and follow his gut are motivating.

At one especially memorable point in March, the reality of Lewis’ youth is driven home. After leading a protest march at a local movie theater near Nashville, Tenn., Lewis and several protestors are thrown in jail. The date was Feb. 21, 1961 — his 21st birthday. Lewis also spends time at the beginning of the volume remembering his parents’ shame.

“When my parents found out I’d been arrested and gone to jail, they were devastated,” Lewis writes. “I was an embarrassment and a source of humiliation and gossip ... so I stopped going home as much.”

Interspersed among Lewis’ recollection of the marches, time spent in the Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm, and his surprise labeling as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, is the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, which makes for an interesting contrast — even more so, given the racially fueled unrest the United States continues to face.

“Thank you John, I’ll need your prayers,” Lewis remembers Obama whispering to him shortly after the inauguration ceremony, to which Lewis simply responded, “You’ll have them.”

Much in the way that Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated film, Selma, shines a realistic light on the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s process, March offers a genuine glimpse into the internal dilemmas faced by SNCC, from leadership changes to more complex ideological transformations as the movement grew and people became more incensed at the slow process of change.

Lewis even recounts the private, heated, hours-long argument that took place behind the scenes about his speech at the March on Washington, which was eventually altered. And his run-ins with notorious Birmingham public safety commissioner Bull Connor, are simultaneously, chilling, infuriating, enlightening, and disheartening.

Furthermore, no one who was critical to the movement — good or bad — is immune from Lewis’ recollections. From conversations with President John F. Kennedy regarding his original draft of the Civil Rights Bill (which Lewis and SNCC found unacceptable), to Lewis’ views on the Black Panther Party’s Stokely Carmichael, to respecting Malcolm X despite their differing views, the raw perspective delivered in March is not just educational, but also appreciated.

All of the events in March lead up to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, where the book abruptly ends, making way for the third and final installment of the series. Ultimately, readers are likely to be satisfied by the rich dose of history delivered but also eager for more.