By Cameron Hatheway
When March: Book One was released back in August 2013, it coincided perfectly with the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, a milestone of the Civil Rights movement. Written by Congressman John Lewis & Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, the first book focused on Lewis’ upbringing and how he got involved at the very beginnings of a movement that would soon shake the country to its very core. The book was showered with much deserved praise and acclaim, showing what Lewis and his companions had to endure with their non-violent protests and diner sit-ins for equal rights.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, things accelerate rapidly in March: Book Two, as if someone threw gasoline on the fire of racial tensions in America. The sit-ins have evolved from diners to fast food restaurants, and “stand-ins” were the next step at local segregated movie theaters, but with much more violent results. Lewis and company stand strong, but their already battered bodies pay a painful price.
One of the main events in Book Two revolves around the Freedom Riders and their perilous journeys into dangerous southern states. Despite doing their homework about what laws would and would not protect them, it was obvious that law enforcement had no problem turning a blind-eye when it came towards violent altercations between residents against the Riders. One bus never even made it to Birmingham, Alabama, as police gave the local KKK chapter 15 minutes of playtime firebombing the bus and attacking the Riders before arriving on the scene. Despite constantly being beaten, fined, and jailed, Lewis and the Riders prevailed against all odds and stayed the course.
The March on Washington also happens in this volume, as well as the behind-the-scenes controversy of Lewis’ speech before he gave it. It shows just how tense the atmosphere was, where the simplest use of a word like ‘revolution’ could undermine everything the Big Six (A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young, and Lewis) had worked for, causing steps backwards with their marches rather than forward to prosperity. President Kennedy and his brother Robert (the Attorney General at the time) are also present throughout, trying to keep the calm and urge patience when in fact African-Americans were tired of waiting, and demanded change immediately.
I remember feelings of shock and disgust when first reading Book One, but halfway through Book Two and I was feeling anger and a sickening feeling deep in my gut. This time around things were more intense, more shocking. I knew these events happened; we all learned about the watered-down PG version in our high school history classes. But it’s a different feeling when the events are being retold by someone who was actually there those many decades ago, describing the stuff of nightmares that was once deemed ordinary by society. Powell’s powerful illustrations help bring that sense of helpless to life, with a glimmer of hope shinning weakly through off in the distance. We know how this story ends, but we just don’t realize at what cost.
Lewis and Aydin do a remarkable job as guides on this journey throughout history, helping the reader easily transition between the past and the present. Like in Book One, the framing narrative of President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 continues to be the backdrop of the events that Lewis has lived through, slowly arriving at the result of decades of fighting for Civil Rights: the first African-American president.
While many scenes depicted disturbing images of angry white mobs attacking unarmed African-Americans, these are the images that need to be seen and remembered. Powell is able to really bring history to life, capturing that raw, crazed look in the eyes of Klan members and police officers alike, scaring and angering the reader because of the injustice; there will be no repercussions for those in positions of authority who willingly abuse their power. Slightly parallel themes can be felt of today’s atmosphere with police and the African-American community.
March: Book One and Book Two should be staples in every high school library and history classroom. Students need to know the darker parts of American history, for it’s never as peachy-keen and patriotic as advertised. To quote the punk band the Descendents, “I’m proud and ashamed / Every Fourth of July / You got to know the truth / Before you say that you got pride!”
March: Book Two takes place between 1961-1963, leaving Book Three to cover the upcoming events of the Selma to Montgomery voting right marches and beyond. For those who saw the movie Selma this past Christmas break and want to know more, the March books would make for great companion pieces. It’s a powerful read, engrossing the reader in the pages of history for 192 pages. Be prepared to run the emotional gauntlet several times over while reading in one sitting or more, for once it sinks its teeth into you there’s no turning back.
Now to march onwards to the final book, Book Three, to be released sometime later this year.