Congressman John Lewis is a member of the United States House of Representatives as Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District Representative (GA-5, Democrat). During the 1960s, Lewis was also one of the “Big Six” leaders of the American Civil Rights movement (with the others being Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young). Before such fame and accomplishments, he was born John Robert Lewis in February 1940 to sharecropper parents, Willie Mae (Carter) and Eddie Lewis.
In 2013, Top Shelf Productions began publishing a series of three graphic novels, entitled March, that would chronicle Congressman Lewis' time as a Civil Rights activist. March begins with his childhood and moves onto his time as a college student who is a participant in and organizer of dangerous protests. The story ultimately shits into Lewis' years as a leader in the Civil Rights movement and as someone who shapes and influences change, politically and socially. March is written by Congressman Lewis and Andrew Aydin, one of Lewis' top advisers, and is drawn and lettered by Nate Powell, an award-winning book illustrator and comic book creator.
March: Book Three (August 2016), like March: Book One and March: Book Two, uses the inauguration of President Barack Obama (January 20, 2009) as a kind of framing sequence from which a 68-year-old Lewis looks back on the events of the past. Book Three opens on September 15, 1963 and depicts the terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
By the fall of 1963, the Civil Rights movement has found its way into the consciousness of the American people. As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis is one of the people that have made this happen. SNCC continues to force the nation to confront its own blatant injustice, but as the movement grows more successful, its enemies grow bolder and more dangerous. The supporters of segregation and of Jim Crow use everything from courtroom tactics via friendly judges to intimidation via violence. Even more worrying, racists like the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist become more violent and seem to deal out death with impunity.
However, the Civil Rights movement, with Dr. Martin Luther King as its leader and most famous face, decides that in order for black Americans to be truly free and equal, they must be able to vote as freely as any white American. It is time to end the voter suppression that silences so many Americans. The cry becomes “One Man, One Vote!” Lewis and an army of young activists launch their nonviolent revolution with innovative campaigns such the “Freedom Vote” and “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” and with an all-out battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged live on national television.
There are new struggles, new allies, new opponents, and an unpredictable new president (Lyndon B. Johnson – the 36th) who might be both an ally and an opponent at the same time. Even SNCC begins to fracture. For 25-year-old John Lewis, however, there is no turning back as he and his fellow activists risk everything on a historic march that will begin in the town of Selma, Alabama.
THE LOWDOWN: I never doubted that March Book Two could be as powerful as March Book One, but then, I found that Book Two surpasses the first book in terms of intensity. So, would March Book Three be the typical trilogy fail – the week final entry in a storytelling triplet? Never fear, dear readers; there is no failure here. Book One depicts the awakening or the full rising of Civil Rights tide. Book Two took the readers into the trenches and to the front lines of a non-violent war in which one side uses peace and the other employs senseless, ceaseless, and wanton acts of violence.
March Book Three depicts many infamous acts of violence against Civil Rights activists. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing; the kidnapping and murder of three Civil Rights workers (Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney), and “Bloody Sunday” are some of the most infamous acts of violence, murder, and mayhem that occur against the movement from the Fall 1963 to Spring 1965.
However, Book Three gets into the details and process of forcing change through politics and political action. The emphasis is the movement's focus on the federal government, particularly on the Presidency of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice. The narrative of this book focuses more on political wrangling, with violence often as backdrop, and there is a sense that something is coming to an end. Gaining the right to vote for Black people nationwide feels like the end of one story, the close of an iteration of the Civil Rights movement.
Whatever comes next for the movement will be different, but for now, there can be some joy in what is gained by the end of March Book Three. That is the best thing about March Book Three; Lewis, Aydin, and Powell convey the sense of hope, and no matter what happens next, the victory of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama voting rights marches offers hope no matter how good or bad things get from that point going forward.
On the last page of March: Book Three, Congress John Lewis and Andrew Aydin give us a depiction of the two of them talking about that “comic book idea.” Lewis says “We'll have to find a great artist – someone who can make the words sing.” Lewis and Aydin's words have the depth and detail of prose and convey the lyrical flow of poetry.
Well, they did find the great artist who could make their words sing in the person of Nate Powell. Comic books are a storytelling medium that uses graphics to convey, communicate, and tell a story, and Powell makes the words sing “Hallelujah!” That boy can sang! In the end, Powell, with pencil, pen, and brush, creates a comic book that lifts him, as well as the readers, to the heights. None of the greats – not Crumb, not Kirby, not Moebius, not Eisner, not Los Bros., not Wood, not Kurtzman; none of them are above him. Now, he is their equal.
Nate Powell has marched on up to the mountaintop, and he sits on high with the masters, old and new. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the named and unnamed of the American Civil Rights movement deserve nothing less in the comic book artist who would tell their story.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: People interested in the history of the American Civil Rights movement must have March: Books One, Two, and Three.
A+ 10 out of 10
For more information about the March trilogy, visit here or at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/march