Growing up in the South in the 1970s and 80s, I learned about the 1960s Civil Rights movement in bits and pieces. It was recent enough to be in a lot of people’s memories, and too recent to be covered with much depth in history books (if in fact we ever got past World War II in our history classes). I picked up what I know mostly from book, movies, TV, and the occasional memory of an adult who felt like talking about it. So, for me, John Lewis’s graphic memoir, co-written by Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell, is an invaluable resource in that it fills some of the gaps in my knowledge and allows me to see how the various bits and pieces I already knew about fit together.
The two books, the first in a planned trilogy, begin with Lewis’s youth in Alabama and follow his work as an activist in Nashville and eventual leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through the March on Washington in 1963. He tells of the lunch counter sit-ins, movie theatre stand-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Children’s March in Birmingham. He and his associates are arrested repeatedly, and they refuse to pay bail and contribute to the unjust system. And they refuse to fight back, despite the many shocking acts of violence committed against them.
Lewis focuses primarily on events that he was involved with, and he was involved in enough to offer a broader, yet more specific view than I’ve encountered before. He’s involved in enough to give a broad view, but close enough to the events to be able to share important details. Having a scattershot education about the movement meant that I didn’t quite know what the Freedom Riders were doing, beyond promoting equality, but Lewis explains that they were raising awareness of the non-existent enforcement of the desegregation laws related to buses and bus stations. (This may be common knowledge to everyone else, but it was entirely new to me.)
The writing is mostly serviceable, but a book like this doesn’t need remarkable writing to be worth reading. The story is what’s remarkable. The inauguration of Barack Obama is used as a framing device for the story, especially in Book One, which show Lewis sharing his memories with some young visitors to his office on Inauguration Day. I didn’t find the device entirely effective, but it did lead up to a arresting set of images in Book 2, in which Aretha Franklin’s singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is juxtaposed with a 1961 attach on the Freedom Riders at a Greyhound station in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s horror and hope brought together.
The art is often able to communicate both the horror and the hope in ways the words cannot. Powell’s black-and-white drawings are, to my non-artist’s eye, quite effective. Often, the images are able to convey much more than words would be able to, and the art makes it possible to take in this huge story in a short amount of time. To read a similarly comprehensive account of the Civil Rights movement would take weeks, but this format allowed me to gain a lot of knowledge in just a few hours. If you’d like to fill in similar gaps in your knowledge, I recommend these. And I look forward to the final book.