The third volume of John Lewis’s memoir in comic-book form picks up with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls. As the head of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Lewis, along with fellow SNCC members and activists from other groups, had to start thinking of a response. They turned their attention to voting rights.
The memoir, cowritten by Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell, chronicles the voter registration drives in Alabama and Mississippi, efforts to win representation at the Democratic Convention in 1964, and the Selma-Montgomery March. Like the previous volumes in the series, March, Book Three shows how the various aspects of the Civil Rights movement fit together. For me, this is one of things that makes these books such a tremendous contribution to literature on the movement. I’ve learned about various events and people over the years, but until reading these books, I didn’t have a good sense of the movement as a whole.
Many elements of the stories recounted here and in the previous books are familiar. There’s extreme violence and extreme courage. The murder of Civil Rights workers in Mississippi gets attention, as do the many arrests and beatings. And throughout, the leaders’ careful thought about the direction of the movement is clear. Lewis and the other leaders of the movement do not always agree, and the conflicts within SNCC are not ignored.
I read the first two March books last year back in 2015, not realizing how much more relevant the stories of protest would become in the following year. To be sure, the need to protest injustice never stopped, it’s just that the magnitude of present-day injustice was out of sight to many of us for a long time. Today, it’s clear that the work of Lewis and others isn’t done. Stories about the DAPL protests and proposals to lessen the consequences for people who run down protesters in the street show that non-violent protest is still often dangerous today. May we all have courage to do what is right in these painful times.