March, by John Robert Lewis

Five stars for the series, read in February 2015 (volume three in 2016 when it was released; review updated in 2017 to add relevant links).

This series is a spectacular, detailed personal account of a brilliant period in our recent history. It’s the story of the civil rights movement as seen by Congressman John Lewis, who was an integral part of the movement and has continued fighting for human rights for the past sixty years.

I struggle sometimes with black and white graphic novel illustrations, but in general—especially in book one—these are clear and easy to read. The first book begins with Lewis’s childhood, illustrating the rise of the student movement and the lunch counter sit-ins that were its beginning.

With book two I had to take back what I said about the illustrations being easy to follow. Here we see the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, and the bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls. There is so much going on in some of the scenes, with multiple threads of narration and dialogue progressing simultaneously, that it becomes chaotic and confusing and a little frantic. But then, that seems fairly appropriate for what’s happening in them, as civil rights activists are being beaten and persecuted by the police.

Book three takes us through voter registration, where we see how ferociously white people fought to keep black people from full citizenship. Reading this book, thinking about how sneakily white people are still fighting to keep people from full citizenship, is very upsetting.

I’m beginning to think these books may be one of the most important resources I’ve seen for learning about the civil rights movement. The sad fact is that history is very difficult to connect with if we haven’t had some kind of personal experience, and we need to be able to connect with it if it’s ever going to be more than names and dates on a page. I watched Dr. King’s speech more than once in school, but when we hear the same words over and over again, see the same images, and never get beyond that, it all kind of loses meaning. We see him as a Historical Figure, not a real person, and don’t get any sense of the struggle and pain and fear and hope in his speech—we just hear some nice words and maybe we even think, “Well, I’m glad that all worked out.” As though because it’s the past, that means the story is over.

In these books, we follow along and actually see our history as if we were there. We can see what racism looked like before it went underground, the rage and hatred on white faces and the horrors that white Americans inflicted on black Americans. We can see how it looks the same now that racism has come out into the open again. And because John Lewis was one of the prominent figures of the time, we see a lot of the big moments from the inside. He makes a point, I think, of mentioning other important figures—even to the extent that those mentions seem a little random—just because we need to know who they are. And, although he skips the fact that female leaders of the movement were excluded from the March on Washington, he does mention them frequently throughout the story. Which I realize sounds like undeserved feminist cookies, because they were there, so why wouldn’t he mention them? But even so, I was glad every time I saw one of their names.

Of course we can’t expect that these books cover every detail of an entire national movement, and I’m sure that there are other important men missing as well as women. But incomplete as it is (as any non-academic work would have to be), this graphic novel series is far more comprehensive and effective than any education I received in school. If there is any sense at work in our education system, this trilogy must become required reading in every school in the United States. It is so well done, in addition to being one of the most important books of its kind. And despite the decades that have passed since the events it covers, it couldn’t be more relevant to us right now.

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