Working a legal internship in Washington, D.C. is an interesting experience. Every day you meet congressmen and senators and people that you read about or see on Bill Maher. You watch democracy in action, bureaucratic as it may be. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes it’s inspiring.
My first week here, I was invited (sort of in relation to my internship) to attend a book signing. I was told that the man signing books was John Lewis, but I didn’t know who he was. Turns out not only is he a congressman, he was also one of the big six leaders of the American civil rights movement, and the only one of the six still alive. It also just so happened that the book was a graphic novel, or really, two volumes of a graphic novel trilogy called March.
So far I’ve only read the first book which came out last year, and the third book hasn’t been released yet, but basically March is a graphic novel about John Lewis‘s life and his involvement in the American civil rights movement. Lewis grew up on a farm in a rural little corner of Alabama, preaching to his family’s chickens and running to catch the bus to school against his dad’s wishes (he was needed for farm work). As a young man he went to Fisk University in Nashville and got involved with a rabble rouser there named Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis, King, and the other young idealists they were involved with tried to emulate the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to further their goal of breaking down the racial barriers then in-place in America. March allows one an insider perspective on their activities, as they organize sit-ins and other interesting protests to push against segregation’s limitations, making slow but steady progress over time, with the movement continuously gaining in strength and numbers.
Thankfully, the authors and illustrator of March do justice to the importance of the subject matter. The book is beautifully written, especially in the intimate chapters detailing Lewis’s humble beginnings. Later in time (though early on in the story), a female visitor’s awe at being able to meet Lewis and introduce her two young sons to him ably illustrates the gravity of his and the civil rights movement’s accomplishments. Self-aggrandizing? Maybe a little. But with a story like Lewis’, to avoid self-aggrandizing would require significant effort and even be kind of disingenuous.
At the book signing, someone said that most American kids know nine words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, “I have a dream”, Rosa Parks. Something like that. I can’t speak for Americans, but as a Canadian, I know my education didn’t teach much more than that (and the underground railroad). When I saw Selma I was blown away by how much these activists went through. Seriously. These guys were hardcore.
March can be thought of as something of companion piece to Selma. It tells the film’s story from a different perspective, starting earlier and ending well after the events portrayed in the film. And really, I always thought I knew enough about all this American civil rights movement stuff, but the fact that what I’m learning now blows my mind so much says otherwise. This is an important story for everyone to learn, study, know. The story of the American civil rights movement is not just about Americans or black people, but about humanity. It’s about how we can sometimes be so stupid and ridiculous and horrible sometimes, but also about how a small number of people with a little hope and a lot of determination can make a huge difference.