Review: March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, a three-book series by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, explores the remarkable life of Lewis as well as the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Told through careful prose and powerful black and white drawings, the book encompasses Lewis’ life from his childhood tending chickens in Pike County, Alabama, to coleading the revolutionary 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery and witnessing the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.

In other words: the first 25 years of Congressman John Lewis’ life.

From the beginning Lewis and his colleagues in the Nashville Student Movement (which would become part of the larger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) followed a tenant of non-violence, and they demonstrated tirelessly for equal treatment: the right to eat at a lunch counter, to ride a bus, to use a washroom, to vote.

“What we found, as we pushed our protests deeper into the heart of segregated society, was that our non-violent actions were met with increasingly more violent responses.” Members were regularly beaten by citizens and police; they were doused with fire hoses, set upon by dogs, shot at and had their places of worship bombed.

At just 21, Lewis joined efforts by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the 1960 supreme court decision that outlawed segregation and racial discrimination on buses and in bus terminals. Known as The Freedom Ride, a small group of integrated students would ride buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, through Birmingham, to test that their rights would be protected.

They were severely beaten in South Carolina. Buses were firebombed in Alabama. In fact, the Birmingham police, Eugene “Bull” Connor allowed Ku Klux Klan members 15 minutes with the bus before he’d make any arrests. And he would arrest the freedom riders, not the Klansmen.

Book three, the longest in the series, captures the growing movement and unrest as Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee focus their efforts on Mississippi and securing the right for all citizens to vote. Lewis is tireless in his efforts to march and preserve, even when it brings him to blows with fellow committee members.

More than a summary of historical facts, the March book series brings the civil rights movement to life through artist Nate Powell’s powerful black and white line drawings. Seeing Bull Connor turn fire hoses and dogs on children; or the sheer size of the attack on the freedom riders in Montgomery; or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being punched and assaulted as he attempted to sign in as a guest at the Hotel Albert in Selma: these pictures bring to life the terror, fear and persistent sense of hope that buoyed the movement forward.

The work also is a beautifully told history book, highlighting events and people who are often woefully underreported in history texts, such as activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash, who deserve their own books.

Lewis, Aydin and Powell’s March does for the civil rights movement what Art Spiegelman’s Maus did for the Holocaust: take a terrible chapter in human history and preserve it both historically and emotionally, while making it accessible to readers of all ages.