by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions, 2013, 2015, 2016
This amazing trilogy is a multi-year project of former civil rights leader and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis, in collaboration with his advisor Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell. John Lewis’s purpose in publishing this work is to ensure that future generations of Americans remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continue to learn from our nation’s not always proud past. March is written as a three-volume graphic novel, totaling about five hundred pages, with the intent to make it more accessible and interesting to young people.
Lewis’s objective is similar to that of contemporary Germany, which continues to teach its high school students about the Holocaust. In the words of Spanish philosopher Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Racial segregation and denial of equality to blacks in the South is arguably in the same realm of moral contemptibility as the Holocaust, minus the nationally sponsored genocide. Southern states and cities, employing their own law enforcement agencies, enforced inferior treatment of blacks, resisted black voter registration, and intimidated and beat those who struggled against segregation. Southern whites and the Ku Klux Klan burned homes and churches, beat and sometimes killed black citizens while the criminal justice system looked the other way or gave them a pass in the courts. The federal government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson acted slowly and sometimes reluctantly, but it was the nonviolent civil rights protests – lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration drives, the freedom rides, the march on Washington in 1963, and the march to Montgomery two years later – that finally drew the attention of the nation and compelled the Johnson administration to intervene emphatically, culminating in Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
March was written for those of my generation as well. While all the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, I was in high school in upstate New York, followed by my freshman and sophomore years of college at UCLA. I confess I was only tangentially aware of what was transpiring in the South. And even had I understood and fully appreciated the importance of this struggle for social justice, I’m sure I lacked the courage to travel there, as many northern whites did, and join the fight. I have a good friend, a few years older than I, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1961. He was more or less in the thick of it, but he told me recently that he, too, was oblivious at the time.
Although March is written with younger generations in mind, nothing is held back. The story is often angry and violent, and strong language is rampant because it was real. For those northerners who did have the courage to join the movement, “nigger lovers” were as detested by white southerners as “niggers.” Blacks died. Whites died.
Politics of course plays an overarching role. There is one moving scene where Nelson Rockefeller (remember him?) addresses the Republican National Convention in 1964. He warns the convention against the takeover of the Republican Party by “radical, well-financed, highly disciplined” conservative extremists – led, at the time, by Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller’s speech is greeted with a chorus of boos. And Lyndon Johnson, of course, fully realized when he signed civil rights legislation that the South would be lost to the Democratic Party for decades to come.
Anyone who believes the civil rights struggle was won in 1965 is deluded by the false narrative we still tell ourselves about American exceptionalism. The Supreme Court recently struck down provisions in the Voting Rights Act requiring Justice Department review of changes in voting regulations by certain states that, in the past, discriminated against minorities. No sooner was this ruling handed down than these same states cynically passed voter ID laws and restrictions that were blatantly crafted to suppress minority and Democrat votes. North Carolina and Texas are two leading examples. Lower courts have ruled against many of these states’ legislation and, thanks to the 4-4 deadlock in our current Supreme Court, North Carolina’s rules will not be in place in the November 2016 election.
Because of the same dysfunctional 4-4 Supreme Court deadlock – held firmly in place by Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold a confirmation vote on a ninth justice to replace Antonin Scalia (this in our dysfunctional Republican Congress) – the Texas law remains in place, since, unlike the North Carolina law, it was upheld in the lower courts. So if you have a concealed carry permit in Texas, go vote (Republican); if you have a student ID, too bad.
Mass incarceration and subtly entrenched bias by law enforcement, both north and south, are further evidence that insidious discrimination is still rampant in America. The transgender bathroom dilemma is yet another example, proving that our underlying penchant for intolerance is not restricted to race.
So John Lewis’s important graphic work March ends with Book Three, but the state of America, here and now in 2016, clearly calls for a fourth volume. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.