March: Book Three is a heavier book than the volume that began the trilogy, and not just because of its impressive page count. The world has changed since the first volume was released and this chapter has a different flavor than either of its predecessors. At times it can even be hard to read. But not just in spite of this, but because of this, March remains essential.
The crucial theme of this volume is pressure. The pressure the Movement had to keep on the American conscience and legal system, the pressure on segregationists following the Freedom Rides and other largely successful campaigns, the pressure on Northerners and white Americans to get into the Movement and the pressure on Black activists to retain control of their own story. This tensed atmosphere is what holds the book together as John Lewis and Andrews Aydin try to tackle the complicated years of 1964 and 65.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, March: Book Three is the most chaotically structured of the trilogy. As SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations put weight behind more campaigns and challenge ever deeper tenants of the U.S.’ structural oppression, it becomes harder to hold to the chronological structure that the series has employed. Aydin deals with this by essentially splitting the story into two parts, depicting the road to the 1964 Democratic Convention and the Selma-Montgomery march, respectively.
It also feels like this book is taking a much more ‘low to the ground’ perspective. Ironically, each of the books’ lengths is inversely proportional to the amount of time they cover, but, despite the short period it looks at, this volume in particular not only covers a great deal more of what happened but spends a lot more time showing you how it happened.
The result is the densest and also the most emotional book in the trilogy. I’m not unwilling to admit that I read swaths of this book with tears welling up. More so than ever before, Lewis and Aydin portray the sharpness of segregation and the cost of freedom, paid so heavily in young and innocent lives. In Book One we saw opposition on the grounds of legality and in the form of casual disregard for black bodies and black lives. Book Two set us eye to eye with those that would fight to oppose legislation or murder its effectiveness in the crib. But here the issue is enforcement. Here many of the legal battles in question are theoretically won and the Federal Government is, at least on paper, in support of integration. No longer can segregationists hide behind the law and, thrown into the open, they fight back brutally.
Even if you know, or think you know, the history, it is hard to see young people being shot, tortured, and made to simply disappear. Somehow, it’s that last one – most clearly seen in the case of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner – that strikes the closest. The realism, the possibility of it, is staggering, and that’s essential, because that’s what the Movement was wrestling with at that time too.
Much of this volume sees Lewis as a growing outsider, as resistance and failures begin to erode the faith of many activists. Lewis calls the Democratic Convention “the turning point of the Movement,” marking the point where many activists’ trust in the government evaporated. The rifts forming within the Movement allow Lewis’ personal feelings a more natural place in the narrative.
It’s also fascinating to see how those tears developed. One thing that didn’t always come across clearly in the March Trilogy was how radical people felt that SNCC was. It’s mentioned many times, but it’s not hard to see organizations like the NAACP or SCLC as conservative by modern standards, especially viewed from Lewis’ point of view. Here we see a little more of Lewis’ fire as well as struggles working with activists that did not or no longer shared his commitment to non-violence. It’s easy to nod our heads and say that nonviolence was the right way, but Lewis and Aydin are firm in their understanding that it was a hard and active choice and honest in their acceptance that non-pacifist activists played a part in the success of peaceful protest.
The point is made clearest by Diane Nash early in the book. “We can tell people not to fight only if we offer them a way by which justice can be served without violence,” she reminds Dr. King. Her words lead us to the 64 Convention and on to the modern day.
March is excellent at working principles like this easily into the narrative. Aydin and Lewis are not content to merely remind people of injustice or celebrate the Movement, but provide a road map for adopting the spirit of non-violent resistance in the modern world. And don’t think for a moment that this book is not written with the modern world in mind. Just as the John Lewis of 1964 was feeling pressure, it is clear that Lewis and Aydin, today, are feeling the weight of all that has yet to be achieved.
Even more than its predecessor, much of Book Three feels frighteningly timely. This is a celebration of real and significant progress that was won through fierce resistance, however, it powerfully calls to our minds the Johnny Robinsons (gunned down fleeing from cops he didn’t trust) and Virgil Lamars (a thirteen year old shot by teenaged klansmen) and Annie Lee Coopers (beaten by Sheriff Jim Clark on camera for saying she didn’t fear him) of today as well as the Nelson Rockefellers (who called on the 64 Republican convention to repudiate and excise bigoted candidates) and the Barry Goldwaters (the Republican candidate who mastered the art of coded appeals to racial tensions) as well.
The slower pace of this volume also allows Powell and Aydin to include some really powerful moments. Some, like the eulogy for James Chaney or a meeting with Hubert Humphrey, are plain and forward, but many, like then-chairman Lewis stepping into a bathroom at the Jackson, Mississippi bus terminal speak quietly to you, encouraging you to read slow or to read again.
While there are significant adaptations to the different times depicted in this installment, much of what made the first two books remains in place. Aydin is still an able steward of Congressman Lewis’ voice, delivering his message with clarity and humility. The attention paid to naming and highlighting of other activists is present, both complicating and enriching the reading experience. As before there are tangled relationships between activists and politicians, and between different activists for that matter, that could fill their own books and soaring speeches recreated in impressive detail.
Perhaps most importantly though, Nate Powell remains our artist and brings the same effortless force to his sharply penciled pages. Powell is still a master of knowing when to let the words speak and when to surge forward. To be honest, I rather like that metaphor, to surge forward, to strike. Through many devices, but most obviously through contrast and saturation of inks, Powell snaps the critical moments into shocking focus, capturing much of what the comic form shares with the two great documentary modes of the time, both film and still photograph.
Just as important, however, is Powell’s quiet skill as a storyteller. Especially in such an affecting story, it’s easy to go through March unaware of the tricks Powell is employing, but they’re there just the same. Clever use of varied page weight and juxtaposition of mirrored or opposite images abounds and the lettering instinctively communicates the story. And, of course, Powell’s careful hatching allows him fantastic control over his images without cluttering the page. It may be more noticeable when things go dark, but it really is surprising how much empty space is in this book and how effectively it’s used.
One thing that I must say surprised me is the depiction of Bloody Sunday, itself. Perhaps it was intentional, but the scene failed to capture the horror and force of the long brewing moment for me. Admittedly, Powell does some great things with the fog of tear gas that surrounds Lewis as he and his fellow marchers escape, but, having been prepped for this since the opening of the first book, it was odd that the scene of the violence itself seemingly had comparatively little to say.
This third and final installment is, structurally, the most unfocused of the trilogy, biting off perhaps a little more than it could have been expected to chew all at once, but powerful writing and an unflinching honesty make it more than a match for its impressive predecessor, perhaps the most emotional of Congressman Lewis’ trilogy. Lewis is right on the money when he alludes to Nate Powell as, “someone who can make the words sing” and Andrew Aydin’s sense of time and imagery combine with Congressman Lewis’ words and experience to craft something breathtaking in both its accomplishments and its tragedies.March is trying to do a lot of things in this book, to teach and to illustrate, to inspire and to mourn, to remember days of faraway horror and camaraderie and remind us that it was not long ago at all. Book Three seems stuffed to the brim and beyond with priceless recollections and invaluable lessons, fighting valiantly to contain an issue larger and more complex than any book or any one life can hold. The book ends ominously, with hope but without answers, and it feels like a sequel or second trilogy may not only be possible but a matter of public service. Concluded, March leaves us wiser, more knowledgable and trusted with greater complexity than when it started.An impressive end to this beautiful experiment and the latest act of non-violent revolution from Congressman Lewis.