When we think of Civil Rights in the United States, one name often comes to mind: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After all, he was the activist and organizer who inspired so many millions to this day to stand up peacefully to authority, the man who had a dream, the man who died in pursuit of equality, the man who the third Monday in January (today) honors in the form of a national holiday.
By all means, Dr. Luther King Jr .deserves every acclaim and accolade attributed to his name. But, like all great men of note, he did not rise to his esteemed position alone. Because though one voice is all that is needed to change the tide of opinion, other voices must join to create the swell of opposition. One man can march, but he is more powerful when he does not march alone.
Enter John Lewis, among other men of note, pictured above with Dr. King on the far right. During the darkest and most turbulent days of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis more often than not found himself in the room where it happened when marches were planned, sit-ins were scheduled, peaceful tactics were taught and mastered. He was equally active on the front lines of justice, suffering brutal beatings at the hands of civilians and police, and being arrested no less than 45 times.
He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders to protest strict bus segregation laws.
He coordinated the Freedom Summer efforts to register black voters.
He marched on Selma and was beaten within an inch of his life during the infamous Bloody Sunday.
He was one of the “Big Six” who organized the March on Washington, and he spoke to the crowd before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech.
In fact, John Lewis is the last surviving of those who spoke at the March on Washington.
Didn’t know that, did you? Well, neither did I. Until, that is, I read the March series.
Today, John Lewis serves in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional district. Teaming up with politician Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell, Lewis outlines his time as an activist and organizer during the Civil Rights Movement paralleled with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama- The United States’ first black president- in this graphic novel trilogy.
Each Book in the trilogy has made its way onto required school reading, best seller, and major award lists alike- Book Three having recently won the coveted National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This comes as no surprise, as each installment is equally as riveting, powerful, and important as the next. Done in black and white graphic illustrations, the dark times seem darker when each page gives more background of racism, segregation, and horrific oppression. It also makes the hopeful times seem more uplifting when activists answer the call of justice and band together despite the very real hate and danger, especially given where the story -like the moral universe- ultimately arcs.
I read this entire trilogy in the span of a week and I could not put any of the Books down once I picked them up. Enraptured not only by John Lewis’ personal contribution to the cause and the blatant brutality against an entire group of people due just to the color of their skin, but at how the events of the past so hauntingly mirrored some of the rhetoric and political action of the present. I take solace and inspiration from the peaceful actions of John and other activists, knowing that what could be done once could ultimately be done again.
And so important it is, especially in the current political atmosphere in the United States, that we know our past as we look forward and face an uncertain future when it comes to our rights and liberty. That we have shining examples of bravery, of peaceful activism, of using the law and Constitution themselves when measures of oppression are presented as right and just, when rumors and beliefs are presented as truths, and when the will of the powerful is executed in stark contrast against the liberty of the often disenfranchised masses. That we not only honor John Lewis and his remarkable past work in the name of Civil Rights, but that we see how to this day he fights for equality, stands up for what is right and just, and remains a force to be reckoned with and an example to follow. That it is always the appropriate time to ponder the questions, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
I wholeheartedly recommend this trilogy to budding politicians, organizers, activists or anyone who wants to make a difference on any scale; and to all Americans, people who live in the United States, and citizens of any modern nation, so that, when called to, we may all be instilled with the courage and inspiration to stand up and make good trouble.
Add the March Trilogy to your Goodreads account so you remember to check it out during your next visit to your local library.
Or invest in your own copy of any of the Books or the whole trilogy via IndieBound.
Now go and, in the words of John Lewis’ elementary teacher, “Read, child. Read.”
Edit: since this post went live, John Lewis and March Book Three won four of the prestigious 2017 Youth Media Awards sponsored by the American Library Association: the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, the Printz Award, and the Sibert Award.