Marching Toward a National Book Award

It’s a nice day indeed when you get a library notice that your desired book is waiting for you on the hold shelf, and two hours later you learn the same book has been shortlisted for the National Book Award!

Would March: Book Three live up to the hype? I was pretty stirred up by the end of the second book. As I saw it at the time either Book Two would be the height of the story arc, or they could make Book Three even more interesting and exciting. At the time, that didn’t seem possible.

But it was!

If you’re not familiar with the series, the March trilogy is a set of graphic novels based on the first-person experiences of Representative John Lewis (Georgia) during the Civil Rights era. He’s born to sharecropper parents in Alabama, and when he attends seminary school in Nashville he starts working with others on lunch counter sit-ins. He soon meets Martin Luther King, Jr., and cinches his place in the inner circle of the civil rights movement. He ends up in several scary situations, he is beaten and screamed at, but he never gives up his faith in the power non-violence and the civil rights struggle.

I had never read a first-person account of the movement in long form, and I also wasn’t very familiar with John Lewis before reading this series. (He recently made headlines with his sit-in for gun control.) What the series really gave me was a sense of detail about certain events that I hadn’t had before.

John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, for example. This sequence during Book Two revealed much conversation that happened about Lewis’ speech in the hours before he gave it, with various organizations and representatives wanting him to take out certain phrases. Through the series, Lewis’ association with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) changes, from being a key member to being slightly at odds with the direction the organization was going in. The March on Washington seems to be a pivotal point in this relationship.

Book Three was the longest of the series, and dense with information. As I was reading it just a few weeks before a really important election, the sequence about Fannie Lou Hamer really spoke to me. If you are not familiar, blacks were attempting to register to vote in Alabama and encountering roadblocks galore, from ‘tests’ to jailing and harassment. Sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer testified on live television about her experiences trying to register to vote, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson was so threatened by what she might say that he invented a reason for a press conference so television stations would cut over to him. (Here’s her full testimony, much of which makes it into Book Three.)

To me, the LBJ episode says a lot about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote. People in this country have fought long and hard just to be able to vote! Don’t take the privilege lightly, friends.

Back to the book. Book Three starts honing in on activity in Selma, Alabama, and the serious voter suppression going on there. The climax of the book is a planned march from Selma to Montgomery, a symbolic march to present their case on the steps of the state capitol.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Selma, but the first outing doesn’t go too well. Participants have gathered from across the US, and they are met on the opposite side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a litany of cops and unsupportive citizens. It’s a bloodbath, and the nightly news broadcasts it across the US.

Perhaps you know what happens next, but Book Three is still a page-turner. This book in particular lends itself to a graphic novel treatment, and illustrator Nate Powell has done a fabulous job. Famous people depicted in the series may not be an exact likeness, but we know who they are—the action and emotion of the illustrative choices more than makes up for what I believe was a deliberate choice on the illustrator’s part. I really hope this does win the National Book Award.

In addition to learning a lot of details I didn’t already know about the civil rights movement, this book gave me a lot of hope. Reading it sparked my brain to meditate about voting, yes; but also how far we have come in the 50 years since the events in the book. We have societal woes today that are akin to those depicted in the series, but if there’s one big idea I took from the series, it’s that losing a battle doesn’t mean losing a war. Just keep marching on.

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