By: Kate Lechtenberg
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minnepolis police and the protests inspired by his death and the culmination of centuries of violence against Black U.S. citizens and all people of color, I have been reading John Lewis, Andrew Ayden, and Nate Powell’s phenomenal three-book graphic novel memoir series, March.
The protests of 2020 and the tragic and painful hindsight of 20/20 make March a compelling, tragic, and inspiring read as we follow the renewed/continued/ever-more-urgent calls for racial justice in this country and around the world. Telling the story of John Lewis’s unparalleled life as a civil rights activist, March narrates Lewis’s and the U.S. history with the fierce urgency of today.
Below, I want to highlight one brief excerpt from each of the three volumes of March, along with links to relevant articles from today’s continuation of the march for justice.
Tear Gas and war Footage
Some of the first images in March Book One feature the police’s use of tear gas against protesters, and the scenes of chaos and violence resonate with today’s news coverage that report on the use of tear gas against protesters for racial justice. The White House officials denied that tear gas was used, despite evidence to the contrary.
In March Book Two, when Birmingham, Alabama Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and dogs on children who marched for freedom in 1963, John Lewis remarked that “it looked like footage from a war” (p. 138).
Similarly, the Trump Administration was widely criticized for its aggressive, militarized response to protesters in the capital and for rolling back Obama administration rules meant to curb the militarization of the police. The similarly violent tactics and images reiterate the continued need for change.
“We’re gonna march”
After successfully integrating lunch counters, John Lewis and fellow Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members staged demonstrations outside movie theaters pushing for the right to be seated. As violence increased despite their non-violent protests, a group of leaders began to question whether protests should continue. Lewis insists that despite the violence, “We’re gonna march.”
Continuing Lewis’s and other activists’ legacy, protesters today defied pandemic curfews and violent police responses to continue over two weeks of protests, resulting in the beginning of change across the country and world.
“Each and every one of us…”
But the beginning of change is not enough, as Lewis reminds us in March Book Three. The second book ended with the historic 1963 March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but Lewis begins the final volume with the tragic bombing of an Alabama church that killed four African American girls in Birmingham and then proceeds quickly through the assassination of President Kennedy, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
At the funeral of James Chaney, one of the murdered activists, fellow activist Dave Dennis said, “As I stand here, I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger, or did the beating, or dug the hold with a shovel. I blame the people in Washington, D.C.—and on down in the state of Mississippi for what happened just as much as I blame those who pulled the trigger.”
Similarly, today’s leaders call all U.S. citizens to confront and work to dismantle the systemic—not individual—racism that plagues our institutions and that White citizens like myself continue benefit from.
And today, even some Republicans are criticizing Trump’s response to the current protests.
In short, many U.S. Americans are waking up to the fact that it is not enough to just be “not racist,” but that each and everyone must get involved to fight for racial justice. Organizations like the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Up for Racial Justice are great places to start, as well as the Obama Foundation’s Mayor’s Pledge and other local government efforts.
In 1964, Dave Dennis challenged attendees at James Cheney’s funeral to become leaders in their communities, and today, we can heed the same call that appears in March Book Three:
“Each and every one of us, as individuals, is gonna have to take it upon ourselves to become leaders in our community. Block by block, house by house, city by city, county by county, state by state through this entire country. Taking our black brothers by the hand—holding our hands up high, tellin’ them that if they’re not ready for us, too bad, baby, ‘cause we’re coming anyway.”(p. 101)
Next Steps in the March for Justice
In the November 2020 elections, U.S. voters will have before us so many opportunities to continue the march toward justice. As Lewis highlights in March, the right to vote is a fundamental right of all citizens, but many U.S. citizens remain disenfranchised or otherwise inhibited from voting. The fact that LeBron James and other athletes recently began a voting rights group to protect African Americans’ right to vote tells us that the fight for “one man, one vote” is far from over. The racist origins of the Electoral College continue to dilute the power of people of color in this country. And many convicted felons continue to be denied the vote even after they have served their sentences. These facts remind us of the work that remains in the fight for racial justice.
John Lewis frames March around inauguration day, 2009, when Barack Hussein Obama became the first Black president of the United States. But the events of 2020 are yet another reminder that the March for racial justice continues, and that although we are forever indebted to Lewis and other civil rights leaders’ courageous pursuit of justice and the increased numbers of Black politicians in the U.S. since the Civil Rights Movement, we still have a long march ahead of us. And we are all called to the march, whether on the streets, in the classroom, in the political arena, in the home, or in one of the many institutions still in need of change.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.