- AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
- Congressman John Lewis holds a copy of March, Book 2, the second volume of his graphic memoir of his years as a civil rights activist.
In October of 2013, 73-year-old Congressman John Lewis was arrested on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during a rally to spur action on an immigration bill. It was hardly the first time that the Georgia Democrat had been picked up for nonviolent civil disobedience. More than 40 incarcerations dot the civil rights advocate’s record, and some of them are chronicled with great care in March: Book Two, the second volume of his poignant black-and-white graphic memoir trilogy, drawn by Arkansas-born comics artist Nate Powell, with writing and editing support from congressional aide Andrew Aydin.
In the dense and accelerated March: Book Two, Powell, who has tackled weighty issues with hallucinatory artwork in his pre-March graphic novels Swallow Me Whole and Silence of Our Friends, re-creates vicious battles with police and aggressive white mobs.
An early occurrence plays out in front of the Loews Theater box office one February night in Nashville in 1961. Black moviegoers back then were confined to the balcony, and they might have had to scale external fire escape stairs to get there. Lewis and 25 other activists were repeatedly refused tickets during their stand-in. They suffered broken ribs from police beatings and dodged rocks or bottles thrown by white thugs. Powell’s pointy-nosed cops swing thick batons under fluorescent marquee bulbs, and limp bodies are dark masses in the fresh snow. After two weeks, the activists locked arms to block the theater entrance, and the police moved in. It was the eve of Lewis’s 21st birthday. He spent it in jail.
The Boynton vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision in December, 1960, banned discriminatory practices in bus stations and train depots: “Whites Only” signs above water fountains in Southern Greyhound bus terminals would have to come down. For months, Lewis and hundreds of other volunteers rode buses to test if the ruling was being enforced.
“Issuing this decision was one thing, of course,” wrote Lewis with coauthor Michael D’Orso in Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, the basis for March. “Carrying it out, as I would soon learn firsthand, was another.”
Though Powell’s strengths lie in crafting a venturesome aesthetic—unpredictable panel grids and gutter-defying narrative copy—rather than in the portrait work that sometimes sees him falter, the artist’s advancement of Lewis’s riveting story here is straightforward and reportorial.
Dawdling cops all but whistle and check their watches in the new book as a young Lewis and peers are beaten by whites for using the “Whites Only” restroom in South Carolina. Klansmen hoods get menacing silhouettes amid pine treetops and a textured charcoal ash sky outside a Birmingham, Alabama, bus station. In Montgomery, skewed panels frame a vivid terminal sequence where Powell’s measured strokes are given to fragmented contour lines and smudgy blurs in his depiction of a bloodthirsty crowd wielding pipes, fists, and bats. Lewis was broadsided with a wooden Coca-Cola crate. “Everything turned white for an instant, then black,” he wrote in Walking. Powell details gouged eye sockets, smashed foreheads, and limp bodies strewn across the parking lot.
“Nearly 75 percent of them were between 18 and 30 years old,” wrote Marian Smith Holmes of the Freedom Riders for Smithsonian magazine. “Their mug-shot expressions hint at their resolve, defiance, pride, vulnerability, and fear.”
While confined to his own cell not far from where morally bankrupt Birmingham police chief Bull Connor unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses on activists and their children two years later—an abomination conveyed partly in real-time, partly on televisions in the book, which unfortunately mutes its impact—Martin Luther King continued to call for such action in mostly spare but potent prose. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea,” he wrote. “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
John Lewis and Andrew Aydin will be discussing March: Book 2 on Tue 3/31 at 6:30 PM at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, chicagoideas.com. Tickets are sold out, but some may be released just before the event.