The first book in the graphic novel series titled March opens with John Lewis in his office on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. He and Rosa Parks are standing in his office talking when an African American family from Atlanta comes in, asking to see Senator Lewis’s office. They realize that they are standing in front of Lewis and introduce themselves. The woman with the small children explains to Lewis that she wanted to see how far he had come. This moment sets the backstory of a young John Lewis into motion.
Growing up as a sharecropper’s son in rural Alabama, John Lewis explains that he was always a little different. He takes the time to tell a beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking account of how he took a strong liking to the chickens of his family’s farm. He would feed them, look after them, look after the eggs, and preach to them. He would write sermons and deliver them to his chickens. Lewis attributes his ability to deliver sermons and speeches to the time he spent delivering them to his chickens. Strongly present in this autobiographical account are experiences seared into Lewis (and all other blacks) in the 1950s South. Lewis began noticing that he was not living the same way that the whites were. The white students rode nice school buses while the blacks rode the rickety old ones. His parents would constantly remind him to “stay out of the white man’s way,” or “don’t start any trouble.”
Lewis saw the Supreme Court decision of Brown V. The Topeka Board of Education, and, logically, remembers thinking that everything would change for him and the other black students–that he would be afforded the privilege to ride on the new buses. No such thing occurred.
In a cathartic and defining moment, Lewis recalls the first time he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice over the radio. He was delivering a sermon wherein he stressed the importance of the “Social Gospels.” King’s speeches further ignited the fire within Lewis that demanded social justice, godliness, and dignity for all humans.
As a young man, Lewis begins to consider going to college. He secures a position at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville where he works in the cafeteria, meeting faculty, students, deans, presidents, etc. He delved further into philosophy, history, religion, and the social gospels. Soon, he begins to look into Troy University, a college that was close to his parents in Alabama. Troy, however, was an all-white school at the time. He applied as a transfer student and never heard back.
It was after this lack of response from an all-white school that Lewis reached out to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For a couple of weeks, Lewis was in correspondence with King’s attorney Fred Gray and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Eventually, they set up a time for Lewis to meet King. King was quite invested in Lewis’s story of trying to get into Troy.
In an unsettling and strongly reminiscent tone, Dr. King reminds Lewis that trying to get into an all-white school in the South could bring a lot of adversity into his and his family’s and his neighbors’ lives. King warns that they could be bombed, beaten to death, lose their jobs/livelihoods. These possibilities were frighteningly still all too real in the desegregated US. John Lewis went to his father to discuss the process of admission. Troy State would need to be sued; John Lewis’s parents would have to sign with permission, etc. At first, Lewis’s parents wanted to be supportive, but in the end, they decided against giving him permission for the very reasons that Dr. King told him earlier.
Once John’s parents decided against pursuing the Troy University issue, John Lewis decided to go back to Nashville, TN to resume his studies. He let Dr. King know by letter, and attributes this later serendipitous moment to the “spirit of history.” In Nashville, John Lewis was attending the First Baptist church downtown when he was introduced to Jim Lawson, a man who was conducting a workshop on nonviolence. This First Baptist church had an all-black congregation who had moved churches when their integrated church still forced them to worship from the balcony. Jim Lawson was a graduate student at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt at the time. He taught the small group at the church the words and ways of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other peaceful activists. “Jim Lawson conveyed the urgency of developing our philosophy, our discipline, our understanding. His words liberated me… I thought, this is it… This is the way out” (77-79). This is when John became an active member in the sit-ins of Nashville. He explains how they studied the ways of nonviolent assembly. The students were gassed with an insect bomb in a certain lunch counter. They were brutalized by civilians. Ignored or threatened or physically hurt by police.
This graphic novel does such justice to history by taking Congressman Lewis’s experiences and activism and making it come even more alive through the kinetic medium of comics. He went from a sharecropper’s son to a congressman. This trajectory is one that we should all be watching–learning. It is important to read the battles that were fought and won so that we can assemble and protest today. Please stay tuned. I will cover books 2 and 3 in the next blogs!