If I could buy the March trilogy for every human on this planet over age 13, I would. And while my dream may never play itself out fully, I’ve inched closer to this goal. I palmed the books into the hands of a close friend who loves politics much more than comic books. I insisted that any reader who is studying the tense race relations of the American South in To Kill A Mockingbird could use March to extend and add context to their inquiries. And when I ran into a high school history teacher while I was grocery shopping, I encouraged him to assign it to his American Studies classes.
The March series offers a view into the personal life of Georgia Congressman John Lewis and of the civil rights movement from lunch counter sit-ins in the late 1950s to the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. President Obama’s 2009 inauguration is used as a framing device throughout the series to add some optimism to what is otherwise a mostly difficult story and to remind us of the work we have left to do.
What started as some localized protests in Book 1 has grown to a national and international movement in Book 3, as Lewis grows from college student to chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There are subtle moments in this story that reflect this change, such as Lewis’s return to the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, a central location of Book 2, to see that the restroom signs are no longer marked “white” and “colored.”
However, the politics become more sinister. Externally, President Lyndon Johnson is making a calculated effort to save Democratic votes in the south. Internally, there are layers of disagreement as the movement grows to accommodate more individuals from more racial backgrounds and different views on nonviolence.
This volume is also more tragic than the first two. We see the assassinations of leaders like JFK and Malcolm X, and we also bear witness to the tragic deaths of relatively unknown African-American teens, like Virgil Lamar, Johnny Robinson, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. We see the murders of civil rights activists—both black and white—who traveled to the south for protests, like Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James, Chaney, and Viola Liuzzo. Due to the number of lives lost, not to mention the numerous incidents of police violence, librarians would be wise to inform younger readers in advance about its deeply upsetting content.
Nate Powell uses black ink and greytone watercolors to make what would otherwise be faded historical memory come back to life. The artwork is mostly grim, and Powell occasionally emphasizes the grimness by fraying the borders of panel and speech bubbles to show agitation. Powell also borrows some motifs from superhero comics in police brutality scenes by drawing high-motion panels along with onomatopoeic WHAPs of fists and ZZZZZZTTTs of police batons.
At other times, Powell uses his tools to pause poetically and capture a character against a completely black background with minimalistic white text. In this way, he is able to capture brief yet compelling portraits of individuals like Fannie Lou Hamer, whose story might be absent from most history textbooks.
March is an essential supplement to, but not a replacement for, a traditional study of the civil rights movement in a high school or upper middle school history or government class. There is so much information here that it can be disorienting or overwhelming to the reader who isn’t already familiar with the basics about Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, and nonviolent protest philosophy. Then there are details that might escape some readers, such as Nelson Rockefeller’s reception at the ‘64 Republican National Convention, the rifts between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the complex relationship between federal laws and on-the-ground practice. And like any good book, I left it asking more questions than I had before I started.
I urge you to join my mission to get this book into more hands of more readers. If you are in a library that doesn’t have the series, order it now. If you have the series, move it to the display. If your boss wonders why you are investing your budget in graphic novels, buy him or her a personal copy of the series and then buy him or her a cup of coffee and a slice of banana bread and offer to sit down and talk. Too many people died in order for us to be able to tell this story, and the least we can do is tell it to others.
March, Book Three
by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Art by Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (12+)