"March: Book Three," the final volume of Congressman John Lewis' graphic memoir recounting his life in the Civil Rights Movement, has become the first graphic novel to win a prestigious National Book Award.
Lewis and his collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell were presented with the prize in the Young People's Literature category during a ceremony held Wednesday night in New York City.
"This is unreal," Lewis said upon accepting the award. "Some of you know, I grew up in rural Alabama, very very poor. Very few books in our home. I remember in 1956 when I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins went down to the public library and tried to get our library cards. We were told that libraries were for whites only and not for coloreds," he continued, fighting through tears. "To come hear and receive this award -- it's too much." He also praised "a wonderful teacher I had in elementary school who told me, 'Read, my child, read!'"
In an interview with the National Book Foundation, the organization responsible for the award, Lewis said, "This book is for all of America. It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just."
In the same interview, Powell noted that the "March" trilogy has vital lessons for our present time. "Our work was in the spirit of illuminating those participants whose contributions have been less celebrated, but as the trilogy progressed it clearly told a story of 2016 as much as it did of 1964, and I found myself increasingly focused on future readers," he said. "As my two daughters grow into the world, as their perspectives rapidly expand, March is a road map, providing a real sense of continuity and empathy for those who came before—and how best to move forward. In such a toxic time, I hope this continues to be a part of the antidote for which we're all hungry."
Published by Top Shelf/IDW Publishing, the "March" trilogy is a first-hand account of Lewis' life fighting for civil rights, from his early days in Alabama through to his fateful meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., the 1963 March on Washington, and the march from Selma to Montgomery.
The first volume, published in 2013, was the first graphic novel to win a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and "Book Two" won Lewis, his co-writer Aydin, and artist Powell an Eisner Award in 2016. The trilogy was optioned for an animated series earlier this year.