It is impossible to open a newspaper these days without some discussion about police shootings and the mistreatment of African Americans by law enforcement — and rightfully so. The spate of highly-publicized, hotly-debated, and heartbreaking cases of police shootings that have dominated the news cycle over the past year have done a lot to highlight what has long been known by most people: law enforcement treats people very differently based on the color of their skin.
This is, perhaps, why John Lewis’ March series, telling the story of the American civil rights movement from the lunch-counter sit-ins to the Selma to Montgomery marches, is so poignant right now.
John Lewis is no stranger to anyone that knows the history of civil rights in America. The only living member of the “Big Six” and a key organizer of many of the acts of nonviolent protest that shaped the civil rights movement, Congressman Lewis’ story of struggle is a story that needs to be told and remembered, particularly right now in today’s America. That he decided to tell it in the form of a graphic novel is particularly important: making the tales of our past accessible in a format that entertains and appeals while also educating is something that more historical accounts need to consider.
March #2 picks up right where the first novel left off, after the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. It traces the story of the Freedom Riders, the cinema stand-ins, and all the protests that led up to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is impactful, powerful, and tear-jerking: characters are beaten, incarcerated, killed.
What’s most poignant, however, is looking at how law enforcement — and those that make the decisions on how law enforcement should act and operate — treated African Americans like second-hand citizens, almost inhumanly. This resonates, now: sure, the atrocities today aren’t as blatant as we see in March #2, but this racial tension between those who are supposed to protect us and those that need protection is still palpable. We haven’t come as far as we perhaps like to tell ourselves.
As in the first book, Nate Powell’s illustrations are excellent; they serve to not just tell the story through images, but put the reader in a time and place that isn’t always comfortable. This, in the end, is the real power of March #2 and the entire series of graphic novels: to put us all in a place that makes us slightly uneasy in an effort to understand that the fight for civil rights in America was anything but easy.
We’ve come a long way, but even Congressman Lewis will admit that we still have a long way to go.