The story begins on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a long line of marchers in the center of the top panel. They walk two-by-two on the left side of the road, hugging the railing, prepared to meet whatever might be waiting for them on the other side. The majority of the image is empty space—open road to the marchers’ right, sky and river to their left. One of the marchers asks the man next to him the simplest, most ominous of questions: “Can you swim?”
The small figures leading the march are positioned in the center of the panel, but they nevertheless constitute the background of the picture. That’s because the focal point, prominently displayed in the foreground at the top of the panel, is the sign proudly boasting, “Edmund Pettus Bridge.” Compared to the indistinct images of the marchers, the sign is enormous. But things are about to change.
Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general in the Civil War. Afterwards, he became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and a U.S. Senator. Why do I know this? Simple. I had to look it up. In comparison, one of the marchers is referred to simply as “John.” He’s John Lewis, one of the most prominent student leaders during the Civil Rights Movement, a man who was nearly beaten to death by the Alabama State Police after marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. And you know what’s funny? I didn’t have to look up any of that.
The irony is subtle, but clear. When those marchers approached that bridge, it still belonged to the memory of Edmund Pettus, whose legacy would extend to include one final atrocity, but once the beatings were over and the news of what would be labeled “Bloody Sunday” spread, the bridge was Pettus’s no more. It now belonged to John Lewis and his fellow marchers, and the outrage over their beatings would help propel the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today Edmund Pettus is just another forgotten dead white guy with a hood while John Lewis is a distinguished member of the United States Congress.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I’m writing today about March, the first volume of John Lewis’s autobiography. Although it seems strange to admit it now, when I first heard that Lewis was publishing his autobiography as a series of graphic novels, I groaned. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge admirer of John Lewis and he has an amazing personal story to tell, but I hated the idea of doing it as a comic because I thought I knew how it would turn out—a patronizingly educational, vitamins-broccoli-and-brussel-sprouts kind of “comic book.” We’ve all seen them before. Probably even tried to read a few of them. But for anyone who cares about the form, these “take-your-medicine” kinds of books with lifeless images and encyclopedia-ish prose are almost unreadable.
But March is not one of those books. Oh, it’s educational. It gives you the early life story of one of the most legendary figures of the civil rights movement—a young activist from rural Alabama who tried to march from Selma to Montgomery and was nearly beaten to death on a bridge. A young activist who was one of the original Freedom Riders. A young activist who spoke at the Lincoln Memorial along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. A young activist who was elected to Congress and continues to serve with distinction to this day—one of the few members of that troubled body to continue to earn respect and honor.
So yes, it’s educational. But make no mistake. March is a real graphic novel. Written by Lewis and one of his staff members, Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell, all it takes is one panel to realize that this is not some corporate-packaged spoonful of vitamin water. It’s an extraordinarily effective and artful graphic novel.
In terms of story, the narrative is actually full of surprises. It begins on the bridge, of course. The bridge story is often the first thing people talk about when they talk about John Lewis. In the popular imagination, the beatings on “Bloody Sunday” have become the beginning of his story. So Lewis and Aydin repeat it here, in the beginning, but before the worst happens, everything stops. Because Bloody Sunday isn’t the beginning of his career; it’s the climax of a march that began many, many years before.
So Lewis and Aydin leave the bridge and journey back to Depression-era Alabama, where young Lewis, who wanted to become a preacher, practiced his early sermons to the chickens on their farm—chickens that no one else seemed to be able to tell apart. But as he explains, each one was an individual, and he often tried to help the weaker chickens by forcing the stronger ones to share. The metaphors are pretty obvious, but there’s a charming intimacy to them here.
And these childhood memories are interspersed between sections of a framing story that focuses on Congressman Lewis preparing to attend President Obama’s first Presidential Inauguration. During these framing scenes, in particular, we become keenly aware of the impact of the artist, Nate Powell. Powell doesn’t give us the stiff, lifeless, realism of a poorly illustrated educational book. Instead, Powell has mastered a very “lived-in” cartoonish look where subtle facial expressions communicate emotions, perspectives convey tone, and clothing always wrinkles, folds and flops around. It doesn’t take long to realize the extent to which Powell clearly knows his Will Eisner. And because of his skill as a storyteller, he’s willing to linger over silent panels as Lewis brushes his teeth or straightens his tie. These little slice-of-life bits really make March come alive.
Powell also knows how to build to a dramatic moment. In addition to the ominous opening sequence on the bridge, Powell makes the most of Lewis’s first meeting with Dr. King. As Lewis is led through the labyrinthine stairwells and corridors of King’s church in one silent panel after another, it feels almost like the journey into the lair of a Bond villain, only instead of a megalomaniacal Blofeld, we get a friendly and low-key Dr. King in a modest office. But the way Powell extends the journey to that office adds to the aura and import of that first meeting.
As wonderful as the art and the childhood memories are, what I most love about March is the focus on Lewis’s activist training in Nashville. While it’s rarely touched upon in movies or documentaries, Nashville was one of the key locations in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s here that Lewis met James Lawson, a Divinity School graduate student at Vanderbilt who had been to India and studied the non-violent resistance techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.
Lawson helped train members of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, and they decided to test their techniques in Nashville, a Jim Crow city but without the obnoxiousness of a Bull Connor or George Wallace. As Lewis writes, “Much like Nashville itself, Mayor Ben West had a relatively progressive reputation on race” (109).
The group decided to test the segregation laws by challenging the lunch counters at several Nashville Department stores like Woolworth’s. But what really comes alive in these sequences is not the depiction of the sit-ins, but rather the deliberateness of the training. They went through their own form of Parris Island boot camp, learning to suffer abuse, taunts, and even physical attacks without responding in kind. Encouraged by Lawson and others, including the famed preacher, Will Campbell, the students who headed out to those lunch counters were domestic soldiers—as crack a non-fighting force as you’re likely to see.
It’s a great reminder that despite what some might want to suggest, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t just happen because a handful of people like Rosa Parks decided to spontaneously stand up for their dignity. Such a false myth is convenient for those in the political system whose predecessors fought to keep unjust laws in place. By turning the key moments of the Civil Rights Movement into inspiring “human interest stories” this false meme makes it seem like the Civil Rights activists were simply pointing out things that no one had ever thought about before and it was all a happy accident.
But the protests Lewis participated in were work. The activists who participated in bus boycotts, marches, lunch-counter protests, and voter registration drives were highly trained, highly disciplined, highly deliberative activists. They made history by forcing the issue in the face of a politically entrenched, heavily armed, and often violent opposition.
Today, a quick drive through downtown Nashville today reveals that most of those department stores have long since gone. And James Lawson, who was kicked out of the Divinity School by the Chancellor and the Trustees, now holds a “Distinguished Professor” title with the university. Maybe that’s why Lewis’s story works so well as a comic book. Sometimes in life, the good guys win.