March Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Art: Nate Powell
Book Two is better than Book One because we’re already in the action. We’ve already met John Lewis, or at least we know his beginnings and where his story ends up (as of President Obama’s first inauguration). We understand the work, and we understand the importance of the work.
This story is about resilience. It’s about never giving up. If you start the story in Book Two where the violence has escalated — where people are dying — it would change the tone. You’d have a more sorrowful tale. That’s not to say the events aren’t tragic (they are, they are), but Lewis and Aydin focus on the power to overcome. You can tell that Lewis believes in MLK’s moral arc of history, or at least that we humans are slowly, steadily becoming better people.
I don’t know how this narrative or this resilience might be different if written now. But we do know that Lewis is not giving up. And we know that we cannot give up because all the rights we have were long fought for and blood was spilled for them and lives were lost.
Going in, I didn’t know much about the Freedom Rides. I knew vaguely about the danger of Birmingham. (This was also highlighted in James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, which I read last month.) I thought Lewis, Aydin, and Powell did a top-notch job at showing the horrors and the determination. The horrors were shown without becoming a spectacle themselves. The narration focused on giving each Freedom Rider, especially those who were murdered (which was most of them), space to show why this was important to them and why this act was important for human rights.
Book Two also shows how Lewis became on the Big Six (who were all men). It shows more about the JFK administration, and how the federal government interacted with the Civil Rights leaders. (Though while it mentions Hoover and FBI wiretaps, it does not address how extensive they were surveilled and harassed by Hoover.) While certainly central to why the Big Six plowed ahead with their plans, Lewis and Aydin skillfully wove the theme of truly how long black Americans had been waiting for their rights and how they’d wait no longer. There is never a perfect “time” for pushing progress and civil rights.
While in proper chronological order, pairing the Freedom Rides with the March on Washington gave the book balance. The March on Washington in 1963 gave hope. It wasn’t violent. Of course, you get a group together that large and unless the military does an airstrike, there’s not much cops can do to agitate. (Crowd size, along with white lady privilege, was lost in the recaps of why the recent Women’s March was “peaceful” and white ladies took smiling photos with cops.)
This also reminded me that I’d wanted to read more about Bayard Rustin. I’m happy to see Lewis doesn’t mince words on how Rustin was initially excluded due to being an out gay man. And I’m pretty sure every queer person reading this was like ‘yep, of course, straight people need us to throw a party, or a march.’ At least, that was my thought.
I’m glad that they printed the entirety of Lewis’ March on Washington speech in the back of the book. I found it interesting to see the compromises he had to make on it. How this wasn’t portrayed as a monolith of black Americans, which sadly, history too often only allows white men to be unique in their views. (This was something I also appreciated in DuVernay’s Selma and the nuances of MLK’s decisions there.) Obviously, I’d expect this from Lewis’ narrative, but it can also be hard to pull away from our own egos and not just say “remember, I was right” or want to remember it as smoother for the sake the unity.
Book Two ends with a cliffhanger tone of violence with church bombings. We don’t get the circle back to Obama. We don’t get Lewis meeting with children like in Book One. The story has reached a critical point, and there isn’t time for mincing words around terror.
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