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Tuesday, March 07, 2017


What a great man John Lewis is. Born in humble circumstances in Alabama, he went to school in Nashville, where he got involved with the civil rights movement. He then became a ubiquitous member of the cause, considered one of the "Big Six" of the movement, along with Martin Luther King Jr., and was at all the key moments associated with the struggle. He has written his own autobiography, but a few years got into a project with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, In a stunning three-volume graphic novel, March, Lewis tells the story of the Civil Rights movement.

March is the perfect primer for the period of history from the 1950s to 1965. It doesn't into great depth, like Taylor Branch's massive three-volume work, but it does the job in an easy-to-swallow manner. The story is framed by Lewis', now a congressman from Georgia, attending Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009. On that historic day for Black America, Lewis reflects on his past. I'm only sorry I read this after Obama had gone, when up is down and we may have to fight for the same things all over again.

Book One covers Lewis' childhood and young adulthood (actually, he's only 25 years old at the end of the trilogy). During this period, in Nashville and elsewhere, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place. Lewis participated in many, and rose in the ranks of leadership. Some time watch video of those who took seats at counters, asked to be served, were told to leave, but sat there for hours, peacefully, while insults were hurled and food was dumped on their heads.

Book Two is mostly occupied with the Freedom Riders,busloads of activists who were routinely jailed and beaten. Lewis becomes the chairman of SNCC (the Students' Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Lewis doesn't pull punches about some of disagreements, particularly in Book 3, with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council). But all agreed that non-violence and going to jail was the answer.

Covered in the books are the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner, the March on Washington (Lewis is the only speaker that day who is still alive), the bombing of the church that killed the four little girls, Sheriff Bull Connor's deplorable tactics of police dogs and fire hoses, the sparring with Robert Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, who kept telling the Black leaders to be "patient," and then finally the march on Selma. Today is the 52nd anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the initial attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was wounded very badly in the head.

Everyone is in here, from Malcolm X (who Lewis ran into in Nairobi, Kenya) to Fannie Lou Hamer to James Farmer to Andrew Young to Rosa Parks, to Harry Belafonte. The book ends with the triumphant signing of the Voting Rights Act (which was gutted a few years ago by the Supreme Court) and Lewis' embrace with Obama on inauguration day, and a signed card by the new president that read, "Because of you, John."

Reading this book, which is very well organized by Andrew Aydin, who works in Lewis' congressional office, makes one very proud to be an American (and ashamed, that it took so long). I did find Nate Powell's art to be a bit sketchy, and he's not great at faces--most everyone looks alike, and his rendering of Lyndon Johnson wasn't very accurate--but these are quibbles. This book should be read by every American, and thankfully, though Obama is out of the White House, Lewis is still in Congress, a stick in the eye of Donald Trump. His advice? March.

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