There was a moment reading March Book One where I caught myself between pages and thought about the dramatic tension in the story and how it juxtaposed with the smallness of what was happening: black students sitting at a lunch counter in a cafe. It’s unthinkable today to imagine this act would make such a statement on a national level and it’s because of people like John Lewis and the many civil rights campaigners like him that progressed American society in the 1950s and 60s away from the backwards thinking that enforced the reprehensible laws of segregation towards a more enlightened culture where a white person and a black person eating on the same counter doesn’t even register as significant.
March Book One is the first in a trilogy of graphic novel adaptations of Congressman John Lewis’ memoirs from his childhood growing up in the American South with all its injustice and prejudice against black people, to, as a student, becoming an activist in the growing civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr Martin Luther King. Lewis would become a central proponent in organising the famous sit-in protests where groups of black students (and a few white people) would go to cafes and restaurants that refused to serve “coloured people” and simply sit in silent, peaceful protest at the unfair policy for hours at a time.
Like many people, I studied the civil rights movement in high school history and was aware of the sit-in protests but what March does is show how they were created and co-ordinated from the perspective of Lewis, who was there, in a way that I’m sure many people who are familiar with these events on a surface level, weren’t aware of. The training these students – and the fact that so many were students is remarkable – put themselves through where they took turns pretending to be oppressors, abusing one another physically and verbally, to prepare themselves for the real thing, which would unfortunately be much more punishing, is eye-opening.
It’s one thing to read about the sit-in protests third-hand but it’s something else to read about in comic book form, to actually see how the protests started and played out. It sounds like a mundane recitation of history but writers John Lewis and Andrew Aydin wring so much drama and energy from the source material that it – and I know it’s a cliché but its true – brings history to life and gives these events, that happened half a century ago, an unexpected sense of urgency.
John Lewis is one of the few remaining civil rights icons still alive who knew so many of the legends who have passed into history – Dr King, Rosa Parks – that we’re lucky to have him around to share his story with us today. March proves how well suited it is to the comics medium and co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell do a tremendous job of adapting it – Powell especially uses his enormous talents to do justice to the story, paradoxically drawing beautiful art to depict some truly ugly attitudes Lewis and his fellow activists had to endure.
March Book One is an incredibly moving and inspiring story of a 20th century icon and a unique movement in American history. It’s an important book that’s also an immensely enjoyable and accessible read – March is definitely one of the best books of the year that will have you bolted to your seat reading until the last page as if you were sitting in for change yourself!
March Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell is out now
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