Monday, 22 June 2015

March: Book Two Review (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell)

Congressman John Lewis continues his autobiography in March: Book Two which picks up in November 1960 as a 20 year-old Lewis’ involvement in the growing student movement deepens.

The main focus in the second book is the Freedom Rides. Boynton v. Virginia (1960) outlawed segregation and racial discrimination on buses and in bus terminals so the idea behind the Freedom Riders was to test the decision by sending small groups of integrated students (black and white) on buses in the south. The results were horrifying.

The sheer bigotry the Freedom Riders encountered was shocking and makes this a very tough read as it doesn’t gloss over their experiences. Black and white students were beaten in the streets by groups of white thugs and, because the protestors were nonviolent, it was always a massacre. Protesters were beaten bloody, sometimes crippled, and sometimes killed. The police didn’t help and in some cases joined in.

Buses were literally firebombed and it wasn’t long before drivers refused to drive any buses carrying the Freedom Riders. In one instance as the Freedom Riders waited overnight for a bus, the KKK surrounded the terminal, outside the police barricade – the way that panel was drawn with these costumed racists felt like it was ripped from the pages of a Marvel or DC comic! Except the Freedom Riders and the Klan were real life heroes and villains.

More than being an autobiography, Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Aydin spend a lot of time establishing the context of the era. The racism displayed by the public officials of this time was breath-taking. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett announced “The good lord was the original segregationist” while Alabama Governor George Wallace firmly stated “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”.

We see the various forms of non-violent protests Lewis and his friends engaged in – sit-ins at lunch counters, buying movie tickets, handing over mattresses while in prison (Mississippi State Pen) – and its always disproportionate violent response. Just mentioning some of those forms of civil disobedience boggles the mind – how utterly benign and yet how radical it was back then!

The sense of excitement, juxtaposed with the palpable fear of real danger, can be felt in the pages as Lewis and his friends barrel from one location to another. Change is in the air, change is coming, and a revolution is stirring – you sense it in the narrative as its drama is expertly built up.

The book is very informative (there’s so much more I haven’t even touched on that’s included) but it also manages to be a gripping read as these young men and women were constantly putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of progress – it seems like there’s a violent confrontation every few pages. The book also includes scenes with major historical figures as Civil Rights organisations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) met with John and Robert Kennedy and, of course, Dr Martin Luther King. This volume closes out on August 28, 1963, the day the March on Washington DC took place, where Lewis gave his speech (the full, unedited version of which is appended at the end), and Dr King entered history with his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The way that Lewis/Aydin structure some sequences of the book is brilliant. Scenes from Barack Obama’s inauguration day, January 20, 2009, are interspersed throughout to highlight the results of the Civil Rights Movement. During the brutal Montgomery riots, Freedom Riders were beaten by a mob made up of men, women and children, which then cuts to Obama’s inauguration where Aretha Franklin’s singing My Country Tis of Thee, the words floating across these appalling scenes from half a century ago. It’s a devastating effect.

Full credit to artist Nate Powell for rendering the whole book in a masterful black, white and grey. The book is gorgeous, the pages are bursting with detail and vibrancy, and the use of light and shadow is perfect. 

March: Book Two is a powerful and moving addition to John Lewis’ autobiographical series and a grand tribute to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a valuable piece of history too especially as Lewis is the last surviving speaker from that day in Washington and this is a first-hand account of those days past. An inspiring memoir of a remarkable time and even more remarkable people, March: Book Two is comics at its finest.

March: Book Two

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