March: Using Comics to Teach History

In the weeks following the Orlando nightclub shooting, Democrats in the United States House of Representatives staged a sit in on the floor of the House to protest Congressional Republicans lack of action on gun control measures. The sit in was lead by Congressman John Lewis. Lewis is no stranger to going up against unmoving opposition and doing so with grace. Decades after he made history as an integral part of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, he is still making waves in the name equality.

Last Month, Top Shelf Productions released the third and final installment of the John Lewis’ March graphic novel trilogy with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. Telling his own life story, from his early involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the trilogy uses the comic book medium to full effect. Nate Powell’s gorgeous black and white artwork brings life to the stories many of us know in bits and pieces, while Andrew Ayden weave them into narrative framed around the inauguration Barack Obama in 2009. The end result is another great example of using comics as a unique means of teaching history and allowing stories to reach wider audiences.

March: Book One opens with Lewis waking up on the morning of Barak Obama’s inauguration. While giving a visiting mother and her two sons an impromptu tour of his office, one of the boys asks him why he has so many chicken decorations in his office. From here we segue into his humble beginnings taking care of the chickens on his parents farm in Alabama. His preaching caught Martin Luther King when he was just sixteen. Once in college he helped form the Nashville Student Movement, which lead sit-in protests of segregated lunch counters in downtown Nashville. It was particularly interesting to note how his parents did not approve of his activism, and were deeply embarrassed when he was arrested for the first of many times. It’s humbling to see just how much opposition existed to even the most basic demands for equality.

March: Book Two starts with the Freedom Rides on Greyhound busses through the South and culminates to with the now infamous 1963 March on Washington. Book Two is a good 60 pages longer than its predecessor and continues using the framework of Obama’s inauguration. For the purposes of this blog, it’s important to point out that Baynard Rustin, the man behind the scenes who organized the the March on Washington, was gay. Many of the other organizers didn’t want him involved because they saw him as a liability, and sure enough he was outed by Strom Thermond on the floor of the senate as part of an attempt to discredit the march. The contrast of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with Obama’s 2009 acceptance speech seems almost too obvious, but still packs a powerful punch. Book Two ends with a reminder that just two weeks after the march, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young girls were killed.

March: Book Three centers around Selma, Alabama, and tells winding story of the many events that lead to the now famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. At 246 pages, it is the longest of the three books and covers a ton of ground. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson’s signing Civil Rights Act, the march from Selma to Montgomery that horrified the nation, and finally the passage of the Voting Rights Act. However, it never reads like a history textbook. We get John Lewis’s first hand experience as he navigates the fractures within the broader Civil Rights Movement, frustration. He talks about his sometimes complicated relationship with Malcolm X and criticisms of Martin Luther King by the student lead movement. The showdown on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is the culminating moment. Where the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 addressed a lot of the issues, it fell short on the core issue of ensuring the right to vote. There are no surprises or plot twists for those familiar with larger historical moments, but the details between and behind the scenes make for a beautifully rendered and important piece of visual storytelling.

One of the most important lens’ through which to examine and understand the present is historical context. Thirty years ago, Art Spiegelman’s Maus showed us how powerful the comics medium can be in telling stories that give context to historical events. There’s been numerous examples of this over the years, including Howard Cruse' Stuck Rubber Baby (which makes for a great companion piece with March) and more recently Max Brooks’ Harlem Hellfighters. It's a trend that will hopefully continue, as comics offer a unique ability for these stories to reach new audiences. Like a lot of the residual issues stemming from prejudice and systemic racism, there is still work to be done. History, and comics, have a lot that they can teach us.

Daniel Stalter's picture
on September 22, 2016

Writer and Creator of the indie comic Dream Crasher, organizing member of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers, and aspiring Sith/Vulcan hybrid.