John Lewis and the Cycle of Racism in the United States

In the congressman’s graphic novel, March, the violence of the civil-rights era feels familiar.

Fannie Lou Hamer delivers her address to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention (AP)

It’s not one of the official daily themes at the Republican National Convention, but at the heart of every pledge to make the country great or safe or “one” again has been the issue of race. Whether it’s an all-white breakout panel promoting unity, Representative Steve King laying out a defense of white supremacy on live television, or the routine dog-whistle criminalization of immigrants and black people that has been a Republican Party trademark for years, race and racism have been central to the theater in Cleveland. Many of those ideas make the Trumpian vow to “Make America Great Again” sound more like a threat than a promise.

One person who is well-versed in these kinds of racial politics is Representative John Lewis, whose career as a black civil-rights icon and renown as the last living speaker at the famed 1963 March on Washington are now the stuff of legend. Lewis is working to ensure that the hard truths about race in America and his own legacy aren’t erased. His graphic-novel series, March, created by Lewis, his staffer Andrew Aydin, and the award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powell, has been a surprisingly good and critical part of that work. With its final installment, Book Three, due out in August, the series could be both a necessary guide to the past and a warning about the present.

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions

I read all three books in the March series in one go. Even for readers who own the first two, mainlining the 20-year or so time period the series covers has the same effect as bingeing a season of a television show: The themes and cycles that motivate the action and the characters become more apparent. In the case of March, which covers Lewis’s life and perspective on the civil-rights movement of his childhood through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the true pervasiveness of American racism and racial inequality in the era is evident, as is Americans’ commitment to keeping it that way.

March: Book One covers the period from Lewis’s boyhood of raising chickens in a sleepy corner of Alabama to him heading off to college, meeting his idol Martin Luther King, Jr., and becoming involved in the Nashville Student Movement’s early protests against segregation. The story details how “The Montgomery Story,” a comic book released in 1956 about King’s involvement in the famous Montgomery Bus Boycotts, motivated Lewis as a youth and likely inspired his own reflections in graphic-novel form. Book two is a longer volume featuring Lewis’s involvement in the Freedom Rides and his eventual ascendance to leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and status as one the “big six” speakers during the March on Washington. Powell richly drew both books in black and white, and the text provides plenty of detail about the history of black activism, detail which will likely be rewarding even for readers who are experts on the era.

But as good as those books are, it is clear that book three is the emotional and narrative climax toward which they’ve been building. While books one and two read like the classic schoolroom Black History Month narrative of a straight line from struggle to transcendence, book three is a story of heartbreak, the pervasiveness of racism, and Pyrrhic policy victories. This is the true story of how civil rights were carved out in America: in the blood of activists.

Book three opens with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What follows is a cavalcade of violence and a war of attrition between the defenders of Jim Crow and those threatening to overturn it. There are several more deaths throughout book three, and the weight of grief and bitterness that threatens to overcome even Lewis’s supernatural commitment to nonviolence is explored. This was the book that I suspect was written most with an eye towards allegory of current events.It’s impossible not to see the modern Black Lives Matter movement reflected in the violence, including the “Mississippi Burning” of three Freedom Summer activists and the tragedies at Selma.

The graphic novel also carries pretty conscious allegories of the role of race in politics today. A pivotal part of book three is the story of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Lewis helped lead the MFDP’s movement to force a bill to protect black citizens’ voting rights integrate at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and speeches and images from their efforts defined the proceedings that year. One of the most striking panels is Fannie Lou Hamer’s address to the Credentials Committee at that convention, a nationally broadcast speech about police violence:

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the protests at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and the mood around both major party conventions this year. As race dominates the rhetoric on the Republican side, so protests against racial inequality like Lewis’s will probably define the Democratic convention next week. Lewis, Aydin, and Powell were inspired by “The Montgomery Story” and its successful use of the comic book form to encourage activism among young people, so it is likely they intend this book to be something of a hybrid between a manual and motivational text for the current generation of those now marching.

Book three ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “the last day of the Movement as I knew it,” according to Lewis. But it is clear that the racial inequalities and bigotry that animated the hundreds of pages of pain, violence, grief, and activism in March were not defeated by a bill half a century ago. Perhaps America is writing a new book right now.