By Ryan O’Connell
Arts & Features Editor
The Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE) and the Henry Whittemore Library partnered to facilitate a book discussion on the impact of “March,” a graphic novel series by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, on Feb. 13.
The event, hosted by Emma Laurie, program coordinator for the CIE, and Kathleen Barnard, student engagement coordinator of the library, allowed attendees to reflect on what they learned and enjoyed about the three-book graphic novel series, “March.”
This series follows the teenage years of the late Congressman Lewis during the Civil Rights Movement.
Barnard asked, “What do we get out of the story? How does this affect and make us think about history today?”
She then gave a brief synopsis of Lewis’ life, beginning with his birth in Troy, Alabama and his college years in Nashville, Tennessee.
Barnard said Lewis began organizing for Black civil rights in 1959 by performing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and he maintained his spirit of activism until his death in 2020.
She added Lewis volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961, was a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, and was an organizer and speaker at the March on Washington, best known for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis also organized voter registration across the South, helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and continued to be a civil rights activist throughout his career, Barnard said.
She said Lewis was appointed in 1977 by former President Jimmy Carter as associate director of ACTION, the federal domestic volunteer agency, and was first elected to public office in 1981 as a member of the Atlanta City Council.
Barnard added Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s fifth district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, and remained in that position until his death. She said Lewis even visited Framingham State University in 2019 as the commencement speaker.
She then described “March,” explaining that the three-set collection of graphic novels detail some of the real life struggles and obstacles Lewis faced fighting for civil rights.
“‘March’ follows his journey as a young man and college student in the South, organizing marches, sit-ins, and nonviolent protests to advocate for civil rights and equal voting rights for all Americans, especially Black Americans,” she said.
Barnard added Black Americans in the South at the time were often not able to vote or even to register to vote, and the three volumes of “March” document the tireless work he did in the early ’60s.
She then opened the floor to attendees, asking them what they thought of the medium being a graphic novel, and if they preferred it to a traditional text novel.
One attendee said they appreciated the format of a graphic novel, and had been reading it with their 9-year-old daughter, which they said helped open their eyes and learn together about the struggle of civil rights activists in the ’60s.
Barnard said she agreed with the sentiment that it was accessible for different reading groups, and praised the style of the comic - simple drawings, she said, mostly drawn in black and white to emphasize what’s happening in the story rather than distract from it.
Another attendee said they agreed with Barnard, and added looking at photos of Martin Luther King Jr. in black and white makes the civil rights movement seem longer ago than it really was.
They said Martin Luther King Jr. would only be about the same age as John Lewis if they were both alive today, and the graphical nature of “March” helped foster a connection between the movement and the reader.
Another attendee said the series was easy for readers of any comfort level to pick up, and it was a great telling of a very complex story. They added they introduced their son to the novel, who wasn’t a big reader, and that he was glued to “March,” and asked if the story was real.
Barnard said while she knew the broad strokes of the Civil Rights Movement, hearing it told from the first person made it “less of a documentary” and more moving.
“It made it a much more personal story. That this was somebody who can tell you not just what you’re seeing in the images, but what it was like to be there - what it felt like,” she said.
Attendees then discussed the relevance of the title “March” and the significance of the word, the marches in their own lives, and the contemporary importance of “March” as a text.
The event closed with members acknowledging the importance of “March” for Black teens, and how although the series was originally shelved under the adult section, it’s written more for teenagers.
“It’s bringing history to life for teens,” an attendee said.