I don't exactly remember when I discovered that Representative John Lewis co-wrote a series of graphic novels depicting his experience during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, but when I did I immediately added them to my TBR. They showed up in March of this year and I devoured them.
These graphic novels broke my heart and are still breaking my heart.
I first learned about John Lewis from Ava Duvernay's Selma. I am startlingly lacking in Civil Rights history and Black History, something I've been working to correct over the past couple of years. March covers some of the same events (especially the culmination in Bloody Sunday) as the movie Selma, but is told in two time-frames. March opens with Representative John Lewis in 2008 waking up early in the morning and starting his day. As he heads to his office and greets his aide a woman and her two grandsons stop him and this device allows John to reminisce about his childhood.
I loved this opening. His childhood was spent on a chicken farm. John was a serious kid. He wanted to be a preacher and he practiced his sermons to the chickens. He also became a vegetarian in protest to eating his chickens for a time. He recounts some of his experiences as a kid on the farm, going to school, and getting to travel north with his uncle for a visit. Interstate travel by African Americans was very dangerous. John and his uncle were not going to be able to stop safely at any places along the way from Alabama to New York. They had to pack all of their own food and make sure the car was working perfectly.
From those early days we fast forward a bit into John's future as a young college student in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. He was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), even serving as their third chairman (1963-1966). They started holding sit-ins all over the Southeast and other civil protests including attempts at purchasing movie tickets, desegregated bus rides, and other general desegregation efforts. The graphic novel depicts the violence these students often experienced during their peaceful protests. It doesn't shy away from showing the anger and writing out the derision of the white people trying to keep the status quo. The giant thread of conflict throughout their demonstrations and protests is the work SNCC and other organizations were doing to get African-Americans registered to vote. They stood in lines outside of the county registrar's office all day long. If they stepped out of line to get water they weren't allowed back in the line that day.
Along the way, John Lewis meets Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. John was part of the group who spoke at the Capitol on the day King gave his famous I Have a Dream Speech. This section of the book had two hard-hitters for me (pictured below).
John Lewis is still incredibly active, despite his age, in representing Americans and leading demonstrations and peaceful protests. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Georgia since 1986. He still gets up to what he calls "good trouble". He's been arrested over 45 times, publicly beaten, and ridiculed by people with not even a fraction of his integrity or grit. He and Dr. King and the other men there that day were successful in getting the Civil Rights Act passed, but John, and others, felt that it was not enough, it didn't go far enough to protect the people they worked with. And some of John's speech that day was censored by the older men who thought he went too far, he demanded too much. The image above depicts how he felt that day years ago, and how so many black activists feel today. Being asked to be patient for the comfort of the oppressor is abusive bullshit. It has to stop.
John has been committed to peaceful, non-violent protest throughout his entire career, even in the face of brutal murders of his friends and co-workers. During what is now known as the Freedom Summer, John and other SNCC representatives traveled all over the southeast helping people get registered to vote and leading sit-ins. Three SNCC workers, James E. Chaney of Mississippi and Michael H. Schwerner and Andrew Goodman of New York were murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi. The organization was, rightly, conflicted about how to continue and move forward in the face of this violence. Some of the volunteers and staff called for retaliatory action. John cautioned against it, but he did have a sense of urgency to get more support after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Finally, we find ourselves at the planned march in Selma, Alabama. Dr. King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC were in Alabama leading demonstrations to help with federal protection for voting rights. After one such demonstration, Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper. There was no justice for Jimmy Lee Jackson. You can read King's eulogy here. In March, John discusses much more about the political landscape than I do here. He named the sheriff and the mayor, and all of the people in power who contributed to the heightened violence and oppression. I found this call-out very important. Recognition and repentance for the sins of our past is the only way we'll move forward as a country.
On March 7th, 1965, John Lewis led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Their peaceful march was met with billy clubs, tear gas, and violence. Men and women dressed in their Sunday best were trampled and beaten by State Troopers. Fifty people were hospitalized. John Lewis, with a major head injury, was right in the thick of things and all of this was televised. This took place less than 60 years ago and was state-sanctioned violence against our own citizens. And yet, people wonder why an entire community is distrustful of the police.
And again, Dr. King and all the organizers were pressured to be patient. The president continually cautioned that he would eventually get around to this, but there were more pressing national matters than the "Negro vote". A second march met similar defeat on March 9th and fractured the groups working on the protest.
On March 21, 1965, the protesters finally completed a march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery, Alabama. In August of that year, the Voting Rights Act was passed, providing protections to Black Americans and supporting their right to vote.
The event that bookends the story of March is the first inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. You could see how this moment would be a victory for Rep. John Lewis, a man who devoted his life to establishing equal freedoms for the black citizens of the United States.
I have so much respect for Representative Lewis and his story. It goads me to awareness and action in our current political environment. I am always trying to learn more, to understand how our history frames our present, and listen to marginalized, impeded voices. During the episode of David Letterman's new Netflix show where he interviewed Barack Obama, they spent part of the interview in Alabama discussing the crux of the Civil Rights movement. Letterman's shame at his own inaction as a contemporary of John Lewis's was quite the lesson for me. I don't want to find myself in his shoes as my life progresses.
Something that's stuck with me in recent years was a comment made by Guy Branum on Pop Rocket (a podcast) regarding movies like Remember the Titans and The Help. He said that these movies exist for us to convince ourselves that we would have been the "nice white people" during the Civil Rights Era (or during slavery... or anytime).
Really, we would've been exactly as we are now.
If this statement rankles you or makes you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why.
Sit with the fact that during the height of his work Dr. King was, according to a 1966 Gallup poll, found unfavorable by almost two-thirds of Americans. His approval rating changed by a 26-point unfavorable increase from 1963 to 1966. King was hated by a large portion of the country.
Calling out oppression bothers people. We like our status quo. So many people I know now state that they respect Dr. King and wish that black activists working today would be more like him. But even Dr. King and John Lewis were told to be patient, to wait, not to make a fuss. They were told to be silent and let the government get to them eventually. Peaceful black activists today are carrying Dr. King's torch. They are carrying Rep. Lewis's torch. They are continuing the work of peaceful protests for equal rights. Protests disrupt and make the comfortable uncomfortable. Anything less is not a protest. To see it any other way is willful blindness.
In the face of all of this, people still have hope. Black activists are still rallying in support of their communities. They're trying to get access to the help their communities need. I'm saying this wrong. Because it's our communities, not their's. Because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So, until then, we will march. And we will sing. And we will vote. And we will carry on this work of equality and justice for the poor and marginalized. Until the least of these are cared for.