Teaching the Civil Rights Movement through Graphic Novel Series

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My students at the Detroit middle school were angry the day their water fountains and bathroom sinks were covered in plastic bags. No one delivered water to their school that day.

The only drinking water available was in the cafeteria, only to be consumed in the cafeteria during their lunch period. One student complained of dry mouth. Another yelled, “I have asthma.”

They couldn’t understand why they had been treated so poorly.

I asked them if the treatment they received was an injustice. The shrugged. “Probably.”

My next question: What can you do about it?

The seemed lost. They thought about it. “We could picket,” one girl said. The other two laughed at her, mumbling about being kicked out of school and getting in trouble. I asked them who led the protests and resistance actions during the Civil Rights Movement. “Dr. King,” they chorused.

“Yes,” I replied, “but mostly students. Students like you led the movement when older people told them to just be quiet.” Their eyes widened. “Really? Students?” Yes, young ones, students led the way.

March is a series by creators John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. The series, now with three books in the making, has fans hoping it’s creators will pen another piece of history into a graphic novel. The series chronicles the struggles and successes of the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of Congressman John Lewis and his action and leadership within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The book is created in the spirit of the SNCC. Writer Lewis acts a character narrator. History buff and comic-enthusiast Aydin, who worked as Press Secretary for Lewis’ 2008 and 2010 campaigns, serves as co-writer. Powell tells the story through haunting, powerful and spirit-lifting black and white graphics. Together, the team looks like a day in the life of the SNCC with two white men helping to support and shape the story Lewis lived.

Book One begins with a tender profile of Lewis as a chicken-loving boy aspiring to be a pastor and preaching to his farm animals (no converts confirmed). His chickens are his friends, and when they hit the dinner table he refuses to participate in the meal, perhaps his first act of nonviolent resistance. This soft and inviting (somewhat funny) introduction gives the reader a sense of the concern and passion Lewis has for those he cares for and identifies with. I must say it appealed not only to racial identity, but tugged on my vegetarian heartstrings as well.

The rest of Book One, as well as the following two books in the series, are far less intimate, though just as captivating. The series toggles between present day in the era leading up to and following the election of President Barack Obama, and the late 50s to late 60s, covering many bombings, attacks, sit ins, Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, and Freedom Summer. It is highly informative, giving readers so much more than the “I Have a Dream Speech” that often serves as the beginning and ending of too many lessons on black history.

Instead, the March series name drops the leaders on and behind the lines, in the jails, under the clubs of the mobs, at the pulpit, and in the pews. It is often hard to stomach as the words and graphics pull the reader into the most dangerous moments of the student-led fight against segregation and exclusion of black people. It also offers details to help readers understand the disagreements between leaders and organizing committees during the CRM, and helps to explain how the focus of the movement adapted, changed and split over time.

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