The award-winning third volume of Representative John Lewis’s life in the thick of the American civil rights movement, “March: Book Three” proves why it – – and the entire trilogy – – should be required reading in every classroom. (Refresh yourself with our reviews of the first and second volumes.)
Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrated by Nate Powell
By Fall 1963, the Civil Rights Movement is an undeniable keystone of the national conversation, and as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis is right in the thick of it. With the stakes continuing to rise, white supremacists intensify their opposition through government obstruction and civilian terrorist attacks, a supportive president is assassinated, and African-Americans across the South are still blatantly prohibited from voting. To carry out their nonviolent revolution, Lewis and an army of young activists launch a series of innovative projects, including the Freedom Vote, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and a pitched battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged live on national television. But strategic disputes are deepening within the movement, even as 25-year-old John Lewis heads to Alabama to risk everything in a historic showdown that will shock the world.
As a librarian, I believe in the freedom to read. I believe in the five laws of library science: that every reader has its book, and every book has its reader. The idea of “required reading,” a relic of many an English class, has the potential to sap the joy of reading out of even the most devout bibliophiles.
Some titles, however, are required and necessary reading to understand the world around us, our past and our future. The “March” trilogy is one of them.
Opening with the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963 and closing with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, “March: Book Three” covers the most intense two years of the civil rights movement in over 240 pages. These two years are through the lens of Representative Lewis’s work with both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as they work first to desegregate the South, then to give African-Americans the right to vote. All the historical touchpoints are here: the march in Selma, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention.
What “March: Book Three” provides is more insight in is the behind the scenes of the movement: the tensions within SNCC over the use of nonviolence to achieve their goals, Lewis’s devotion to these two groups within his own rising fame, the struggles with finding allies in Washington to turn the movement into the law of the land. This is a story more than the soundbytes from our history classes. Of course they are here, treated with the significance and respect that the passage of time has given them, but they don’t take up too much space. After all this is John Lewis’s story, not Martin Luther King Jr.’s story or Malcolm X’s story. Lewis and Aydin spend a good amount of time detailing the behind-the-scenes of the movement to great effect. That itself provides drama to move the story to its conclusion and provide context yet again to those soundbyte moments. Without Lewis’ cool hand and steel-like devotion to the belief in causing “good trouble, necessary trouble” without throwing a single punch, this movement would not have accomplished even half of what it did in this time.
If there is anything downplayed in this work, it’s the role of the media in crafting the American civil rights narrative. The events of “March: Book Three” take place only a few years after the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates, the first American presidential debates held on television. 70 million viewers watched the first of those four debates, and scholars have argued that this entrance of television into the political arena helped propel Kennedy to victory, while also shaping the relationship between politics and media for generations to come. I can’t help but think about how much the Golden Age of Television factored in to the timeline of these achievements. It deserves greater study than it received here, but I must remind myself this is a story of the man who is doing the work behind the scenes and not in front of the cameras.Continued below
Nate Powell proves again how he can dive into pain and violence through art in a meaningful way, while yet finding joy and hope. As in the first two novels, his detail is rich and used at the appropriate times to set tone and move plot. Texture remains a signature part of his work, from emphasizing detail in close up moments to providing detail in larger scale scenes. This is a text heavy work, but he knows the meaning and significance of “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and holds back on text in the right times and places. The opening splash pages of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a simple “no” as Lewis and colleagues fruitlessly search for three missing and presumed dead CORE (Committee on Racial Equality) members in Mississippi in 1964, Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” of March 1965 – – these are pictures that do not need explanatory text; their meaning is clear and Powell knows this. Where large blocks of words are required (for example, introducing a key player in SNCC or quotations from a speech), Powell uses the full page to his advantage. Sometimes it’s a full page spread, other times it’s harnessing white space between panels with organically flowing word balloons, but it all keeps the balance between words and pictures beautifully.
Where Powell excelled the most here is in his lettering. It’s not just his skill in balancing prose and picture that I just mentioned, or his use of hand lettering. It’s also in his choices in typeface. He uses size for strong emotion: thick bold lettering to show anger and fear, script to show hope in the darkness, larger lettering to raise voices, smaller and less linear in moments of desperation. This last one is done to heart-wrenching effect in one particular scene in the final third of the book, as Lewis recovers in hospital after the Selma Bloody Sunday incident. It’s a full page panel, shrouded in the darkness of night in Lewis’s hospital room. Surrounded by tangible well-wishes, Lewis is still alone and showing his vulnerability: “I had even started imagining someone slipping into my room to finish me off.” Within this sentence, the letters slowly slide down the page, a visual metaphor for the descent into despair that wracks us in darkest moments.
America is grateful to have had Representative Lewis as a part of our history. We should be greater still that he, Aydin, and Powell took the time and effort to document this story before it would be lost to time. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Lewis at the American Library Association conference in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected President and many of us progressives were feeling just like he was in that Selma hospital in 1965: lost, frightened, hopeless.
His advice to me on that day: “Keep the faith.” And so I shall. And may this work, this entire trilogy, inspire you to do the same.