Civil Rights Graphic Novel Trilogy Complete

By Jenni Hart
Photos by Joe Reale

Black History Month is the annual celebration each February that highlights the achievements, and commemorates the struggle, of Black Americans. Although its beginnings can be traced back a full century, Black History Month was given official designation in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, and has been honored by every President since. In a statement at the time, Ford encouraged all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

    Notable events marking the achievements of black Americans in the past year include the September unveiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, the naming of Dr. Carla Hayden as the first black Librarian of Congress, and the unprecedented showing of black US athletes among medal winners at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In the publishing world, 2016 also saw the completion of the March trilogy, the story of the civil rights movement told through the eyes of Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, and rendered in graphic novel format.

    With the first book in the trilogy, published in 2013, readers were introduced to the first-hand account of Lewis’ participation in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. The book opens with a dream sequence showing Lewis and fellow activists preparing to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 1965. Student activists, community organizers and religious leaders had organized the march to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, to demand equal voting rights for African Americans. In comic book style illustration and spartan, straightforward text, Lewis’ dream fades as he wakes on the morning of January 20th, 2009, and prepares for the inauguration of America’s first black president. 

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    The March trilogy, with its final installation having arrived in August 2016, is an opportunity to introduce a new generation to the story of the civil rights movement, and to do so in an unconventional way. What readers may not know is that Lewis himself drew inspiration from the 1958 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. In what marketers might call messaging, branding and packaging, the March trilogy and other comic and graphic publications hold the promise of wider accessibility and visual impact that bring a story to life in a way that traditional textbooks often fail to do. As is too often the case, a middle school social studies unit covering the civil rights movement may ask little more than for students to memorize dates and cities and the names of notable individuals; it’s another thing altogether to consume the events in graphic novel format, as real life heroes recall the very words that were spoken all around them. March is alternately gripping, violent, and tender. Above all, it is honest.  

    Reconciling the high-water mark of black achievement and the deep division and racial discord still evident in American communities in 2017 is daunting, but Detine Bowers, Ph.D., associate professor of mass communications at Shaw University, believes communication is crucial. Asked for her assessment of the March trilogy, Bowers says any text that’s delivered in the voice of those who experienced the civil rights struggle first-hand offers at least an authentic, organic accounting of events as they happened. “Hearing the account of John Lewis, a young man who was brutally, savagely beaten [on the Edmund Pettus Bridge], gives young people a different perspective than one they might get from a textbook or a lecture,” she says. “And the real transformation comes when young people are inspired to tell their own stories.” Bowers says the trilogy provides students with a starting place and an appreciation for their shared oral culture. 

    Shaw University, founded in 1865, was the site of one of the most consequential events leading to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Ella Josephine Baker, who had graduated from Shaw as valedictorian in 1927, was the organizer behind the 1960 meeting at Shaw that birthed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her work with students, and her collaboration with John Lewis and other emerging leaders in the early 1960s, was instrumental in bringing national attention to voting rights and other issues of equality. “Ella Baker urged students to keep as their goal their focus on the beloved community,” says Bowers. “We’re still working with students to reignite that message.”