When the severely beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River in 1955, word didn’t have to travel far in order to reach John Lewis. The now Georgia congressman and longtime civil rights activist was a year older than Till when news of his murder made its way to nearby Troy, Alabama, where Lewis was born and raised. “I was fifteen, black, at the edge of my own manhood, just like him,” Lewis wrote about Till in his 1998 memoir Walking With the Wind. “He could have been me. That could have been me.”
In the months following Till’s death, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat, Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Improvement Association in a boycott of the city’s transit service, and, by court order, the University of Alabama admitted the first black student in its 125-year history. “Right here in Montgomery,” King told a crowd of thousands in a Baptist church that December, “when the history books are written in the future somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people, a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.'” It was the tumultuous onset of the civil rights movement, and it figures significantly into March: Book One, the powerful first part of a nonfiction graphic novel trilogy and biography of John Lewis.
March is rooted in Lewis’s memoir Walking With the Wind (coauthored with Michael D’Orso); moved to the comics medium, the story is a whole and gripping experience. Lewis’s congressional aide Andrew Aydin assisted in adapting the narrative to the graphic page, while the textured black-and-white illustrations owe to Nate Powell, an award-winning comics creator. The illustrator of the recent graphic novel The Silence of Our Friends, an account of 1960s-era racial tensions and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization that Lewis chaired for several years, Powell has covered this ground before in a similarly nuanced manner. One of his trademarks, a prominent strength in an occasional March scene, is unconventional panel composition: word balloons cascade out into the margins, and some panels aren’t really framed by any lines at all. And while the book’s second half is rife with the church basement meet-ups and volatile protest sequences that fill out so much of Lewis’s life story, Powell’s rich, silhouetted farmhouses and unpaved roads couch the integral early passages.
We get a glimpse of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for which the book is named, but since this is the trilogy’s first installment, it takes awhile to get there. March sketches Lewis’s life as an African-American boy in rural Alabama, before his calling brought him to lunch counters in Nashville; chicken coop interiors on the Lewis family farm are darkened with dense black ink strokes. At their modest dinner table, Powell places us across from John, then just a farmer’s son contemplating the idea of eating the animals he’s helped raise. It’s brief but evocative, as is the dreamlike imagery of a young Lewis conducting practice sermons for cousins at dawn. Gray watercolors flood the summer morning sky, while Lewis’s evening rehearsals—delivered before an all-chicken congregation—are carried out under puffy swells of clouds and stars.
Set within the artist’s jagged, lightning-rimmed line work, Dr. King’s “social gospel” rushes out into the parlor from the household radio, a vintage tube-driven tabletop number that’s clearly a product of Powell’s meticulous research. “I didn’t catch his name until the sermon was finished,” John Lewis wrote of hearing King back then. “But the voice held me right from the start.” As a young man Lewis would take King’s teachings to the pulpit of his own parish, and then later to Tennessee, where nonviolence workshops and meetings with ministers led him deeper into the civil rights movement—and eventually to its forefront.
A lunch counter sit-in practice run in a Nashville department store in 1959 proves quiet enough for Powell to play with onomatopoeia, a perhaps antiquated comics device. He conveys the sounds of a waitress’s heavy shoes clacking toward Lewis and the folks he’d connected with at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church:
Clip, clip, clip.
“I’m sorry, we can’t serve you here.”
Much louder, uglier sit-ins followed at stores like Woolworth’s and W.T. Grant, where hordes of whites rushed the doors to pull Lewis and others from their stools, humiliating them and beating them mercilessly.
Powell swaps perspectives frequently to communicate the unbridled frenzy of those afternoons, running Lewis’s narration across the center of the panels. Mass arrests of African-Americans for “disorderly conduct” in late February 1960 yield an engrossing two-page spread in March. Lewis is taken down to the Nashville jail, while verses from “We Shall Overcome” stream and swirl out of the cells. “We sang as we were led into cells much too small for our numbers, which would total eighty-two by the end of the day,” Lewis wrote in Walking With the Wind. It’s a deeply affecting sequence—a meld of strong narrative, Powell’s jittery white police officers on black pages, and an artful rendering of the movement’s most recognizable anthem underscoring the whole thing. For a 2011 New Yorker piece on his time spent reporting on the civil rights movement, Calvin Trillin wrote about the “freedom songs, echoing off the jailhouse walls” in an Atlanta holding facility. “It sounded like a full church choir,” he recalled. “I can still conjure up the scene in my mind; I can still hear the singing.”