Essential reading: MARCH, books 1-3
Sometimes I buy a book and it sits around for a few weeks, months or even years before I get around to reading it. Most of the time, I get distracted with the dozens of other books waiting to be read that are scattered around the house. Occasionally, when I finally read something on my long-term waiting list it really pays off.
That was the case with MARCH, an autobiographical black and white graphic novel covering a pivotal time in the civil rights movement culminating with a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in the spring of 1965. The trilogy is told through the perspective of civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis. With the protests currently happening throughout the country, my wife, Amber, felt this would be the perfect time for us to finally read it.
It's embarrassing for me to admit, but I haven't done a lot of reading about the civil rights movement since college. Reading about the injustices that happened back then can be depressing and dispiriting, but the context is crucial.
About the Selma to Montgomery marches
The Selma to Montgomery marches were three protest marches, held in 1965, along the 54-mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. The marches were organized by nonviolent activists to demonstrate the desire of black Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression; they were part of a broader voting rights movement underway in Selma and throughout the American South.
The first march took place on March 7, 1965 and state troopers and county possemen attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over the county line, and the event became known as Bloody Sunday. John Lewis was a prominent member of the march and sustained serious injuries. National outrage over that event - combined with other violence - finally led to action.
The second march took place March 9 as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the marchers across the bridge and then back over to honor an agreement with federal authorities. That night, a white group of men beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to march with the second group.
The third march started on March 21. Protected by 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command, and many FBI agents and federal marshals, the marchers averaged 10 miles a day. The marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and at the Alabama state capitol on March 25.
I'm not going to go into any more details of the events leading up to the march or the aftermath, as I think you need to read about it yourself. I hope you will consider buying this graphic novel set from your local bookstore; you can also purchase it here directly.
Some notes on the format
As I mentioned earlier, I hadn't done much reading about the civil rights era since college. I haven't read a comic book - or a graphic novel - since way before then. I have to say, I was really impressed by this format as the images lent serious impact to the words. Although the story would be powerful on its own, the images added so much depth and feeling to the words. The emotions of the people portrayed really came though.
I also thought the framing of the narrative was super creative. Book 1 starts out on March 7, 1965 with John Lewis, a young man at that time, standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with fellow civil rights activists during the Selma to Montgomery march on Bloody Sunday. The scene cuts to the book's framing sequence, set on January 20, 2009, with Lewis, now a U.S. congressman for Georgia's 5th congressional district, waking up and preparing for the first inauguration of Barack Obama. This narrative device continues throughout the other two volumes. It's a unique and interesting approach.
My reflections on this reading
One of things that really blows my mind is how recently this all happened. For some members of my generation, Gen X, this event happened within our lifetimes. The people stopping black Americans from voting, being able to get service and use facilities equal to whites, or simply enjoy other freedoms that whites took for granted, were members of our parents' and grandparents' generations. It's stunning to think about both how far we've come and how far we still have to go as a society.
During the recent protests in 2020, some of the most shocking images to me have been of police brutality. Attacks on journalists, peaceful protesters and those just trying to be helpful have been far too common. Some of those scenes are shockingly similar to what is depicted in the pages of MARCH.
I have such deep admiration for the people who took part in the civil rights movement and never broke from their commitment to non-violence in the face of intimidation, beatings, unlawful arrests and the general indifference of so many Americans at the time. Yes, there was outrage in some corners, but far too many people didn't want to rock the boat and press for drastic changes to the system.
There was also disagreement among those fighting for the cause on how to protest. That's also somewhat reminiscent of the situation we're seeing today. Rep. John Lewis advocates the same approach that was taken in the 1960s. It's difficult advice in some ways, but it certainly comes from someone who speaks with great experience and authority.
Statement from John Lewis:
"I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive."
More about John Lewis
As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities.
While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, and John Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council's voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation's political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.