“I was thinking of you. I was thinking of you and Martin. I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed… the people who didn’t live to see this day.” Ted Kennedy to John Lewis
In one of the last lines of this comic book trilogy, it reads, “I was thinking about the years of work.” During the 500-ish pages of illustrations, we see that work during the 1950s and 60s in stark contrast to the joy during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The two stories bring together a canvas of Congressman John Lewis’s history with the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement had many moving parts (a gross understatement) and this trilogy illustrates, literally, the horror, beauty, brutality, and community that came before, during, and after the March on Washington. Book One, the shortest of all three, follows Lewis’s childhood as a chicken farmer’s son to his time with sit-in protests in the 1960s. Book Two follows his journey through the March on Washington, The Freedom Riders, and his relationship with President John F. Kennedy before his death in 1963. Book Three is the March from Selma to Montgomery (Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, et all), the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the organization of the Freedom Democratic Party, and the events around the Freedom Schools. As a trilogy, this work helps to passionately explain through images and text the atrocities faced by people of color in during the Civil Rights Movement.
A dusty slipcase edition of this trilogy sat on my shelf for over three years, trying to understand why I couldn’t find the right time to dive in. When our country explodes with misunderstandings of our police force and its history of brutality, I knew it was the right time. Not only could I envision the friends of color I knew growing up being beaten to death by police officers, but I found myself feeling victorious over these triumphs right with the figures mentioned. This is not to say the work is done, because it clearly is not, but to revisit facts and events I learned in middle and high school was a refreshing look at what still needs to be done. Admittedly, I was scouring the pages for ANY insight on how to better my community through nonviolence and what that would look like.
I’ve often felt that the black and white depiction of comic book memoirs hasn’t been the best way to print a story. Yes, there’s a fair amount of money in color printing every page and the cost of the paper goes up as well as the width of the book entirely. BUT some stories definitely need those colors to help bring together what it really means. The absence of those colors is exactly what this trilogy needed. Even seeing the color depictions on the front cover is a little off since the contrast serves as such a great example. As its own literary device, the absence of color guides the reader through the harmony of black and white, finding that the full story within is the balance between them. Since we have yet to truly find that balance in today’s world, this work gives me the strength and courage to stand up and speak out for the people of color in my life.
If you’re not interested in picking up all three of these titles, I recommend picking up Book Three. Lewis does lean back into topics from the previous two books, so most of those references would be lost, BUT it has the most content and the most hope for what we all need right now. Although the first page is literally a bombing, what we see throughout the whole book is a growth in community and in understanding of nonviolence.
This page of our history feels like it’s still too close to the present. (And quite frankly that pisses me off. As a white man, I thought this fight was over. I was so sorely wrong.) These social justice warriors lost their jobs, their family, their lives in order to make a “better” world for us. And we put all those lives to shame if we don’t learn from what they did, what they fought for, and how they fought for it. March is about the bravery fought and the courage to persevere. And that is exactly what it provides to its readers.
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