March: Part Two – John Lewis/Nate Powell (2015)

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After having read and really enjoyed March: Part One, I ILL’d Part Two which was only recently published this year. This book covered the civil rights battle just after it had started with the student restaurant counter sit-ins and other forms of non-violent protest. (The movement with which John Lewis is closely associated with aligns very strongly with Ghandian principles of non-violence to achieve change. I’m sorry to say that not everyone followed the same set of principles at times.)

The narrative is structured with a back-and-forth in time between the burgeoning civil rights protest movement and the ceremony where Barack Obama was sworn in to be U.S. President in 2009. This was a good way to contrast how far the movement had gone since its early days so as the reader jumped between 2009 and back to the 1960s, there was no denying just how hard the protestors had worked to get recognized.

The battle’s early years were marked mostly with points of action spread across a few states at fairly random intervals and only vaguely connected. The later years show a much more cohesive movement, with by-laws and official leadership and meeting with state and national officials.

They were also marked by a much more vicious response from the whites who were threatened by the uprising and who, in response, chose violence. The black and white graphics in this book are an ideal medium to show this – violence can be very black and white when you’re in the middle of a passionate and important battle – and when I was reading this, there were moments when I was holding my breath with a racing heart as I saw how horrible people were to each other.

It’s impossible for me to relate to how members of the Ku Klux Klan reacted during this time. What was possibly going to happen to them if the African-American population got the vote that justified this level of vitriolic hate? I know that there are a lot of history, cultural subtexts, and social constraints to consider, but it seems so far out of my view that anyone would hate someone else enough to do these heinous acts that it’s very difficult for me to understand.

And, curiously for me, it only happened a few years ago really. I was born in 1963 in England, and it was around this time (just a few months earlier) that the March on Washington, MLK Jr. , and the race riots were in full swing in the southern states. It was in my lifetime, and yet it seems so far away when people talk about it. Black and white photos, old model cars, and unforgivable behavior.

And then I remember the bravery of the Freedom Riders who rode buses to bring desegregation to the rural areas of Mississippi and Georgia, the courage of the young men and women of both races who stood up in the face of hate, and who, honestly, risked their lives to right this wrong. I remember the ordinary men and women who registered African-Americans for voting privileges, and both the Kennedys (Jack and John) for playing leadership roles in getting this fight sorted out in the most morally correct way. And how we now have an African-American President here. All most amazing really when you think about it.

Learning more about the African-American experience in the U.S. has been eye-opening. If these violent events happened in your lifetime (or that of your parents and grandparents), I can understand how hard it must be trust white people a lot of the time (on a large scale). There have been years of evidence that reflect how slightly the White Establishment regarded a huge part of their own population, and so when viewed through that lens, Ferguson, the L.A. riots and others are not so surprising.

However, then you look back at the Ghandian principles that the original Freedom Riders followed, of non-violence, of peaceful protest, and then wonder how did it all go so wrong sometimes?

Oh well. One can dream.

(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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