History exists somewhere outside our everyday reality: The people in the pictures look like us, but their world is monochrome and distant. The highlights pop out, everything else fades to black, and since we already know how the story ends, the events have an air of inevitability to them.
It takes a comic to bridge that distance, and Rep. John Lewis’ memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, “March,” co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, does just that. “March” pulls us back in time, brings the grays back into focus, and shows us that nothing was as inevitable then as it seems now. Thanks to a twist of history, it’s also an unexpectedly valuable document for the present day, one that can be read not only as an account of the past but also as a guidebook for the future.
At the center of “March” is an important truth that is easily forgotten: None of it was easy. The Civil Rights Movement suffered many setbacks and came back each time, sometimes changed for the better. It was a coalition of many people — preachers, lawyers, sharecroppers, college students — with the same goal, but often sharply varying opinions of how to get there. Sometimes their best efforts failed, and they had moments of deep despair. But they also brought a deliberateness to what they did. They had grit and determination, but they didn’t rely on that alone. They were inspired by the righteousness of their cause, but they didn’t rely on inspiration alone. They did the advance work as well: They planned, they rehearsed, and when the worst happened, they were ready.
“March” is like a documentary, but one that goes where cameras could not. Take the 1963 March on Washington, famous as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. In Book Two of “March,” Lewis takes us behind the scenes to see the brilliant organizer, Bayard Rustin coolly handling logistics such as latrines and litter cleanup. (Rustin was kept in the background because he was gay, and in fact was outed on the Senate floor by Strom Thurmond.) Later, we see the group who was supposed to be leading the march scrambling in confusion when it starts early, leaving them behind. And we see the furious arguments that were going on, even as the march began, over Lewis’ speech.
The cameras weren’t rolling when the owner of a lunch counter refused to serve Lewis and a companion, and locked them in, turned off the lights, and released fumigating gas into the restaurant. No one was filming Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair as they chatted in the restroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, minutes before their lives were taken in a horrific bombing. We don’t see newsreel footage of the meetings where leaders of different organizations argued their strategy, sometimes screaming at one another as some called for more action while others advocated slowing down for fear of losing what progress they had made.
With “March,” we get all that and more. Powell pulls the reader in close, showing the faces of the snarling attackers and the scared but determined protestors. He moves out to show the whole scene, the billowing clouds of smoke, the hooded Ku Klux Klan members. He provides background music, weaving the words of spirituals through the story, and he also makes skillful use of intertwining word balloons to show the pacing of a speech or the back-and-forth of an argument. It’s difficult to read “March” and not be moved.
At the same time, the book has an immediacy the authors could not have guessed at when they first started working on it. Book Three is about the struggle for African Americans to get the vote in the South, and it ends on a triumphant note, with the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and then, moving to the more recent past, the framing tale of Lewis attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Since that moment, however, new challenges have arisen. A 2013 Supreme Court decision set aside some provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and almost immediately, several states moved to suppress voter turnout in ways that disproportionately affected people of color; in North Carolina, the Republican party actually sent out a press release bragging about its success in suppressing the black vote. The bitter presidential campaign of 2015-6 divided the country and enabled the rise of white nationalism under the guise of the “alt-right” movement.
This is what makes “March” so urgent. The landscape is shifting, and the “necessary trouble” that Lewis spoke of in the book may become necessary again. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights crusaders took inspiration from a comic, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” that explained the principles of nonviolent resistance. This time around, we have “March” to provide not just inspiration, but a guide to how to do things right when everything goes wrong.