Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I'll end up where I need to be."
Autobiography from indomitable Civil Rights campaigner - now United States Congressman - John Lewis.
Every event chronicled here in painful, painstaking detail happened to John Lewis and those around him between 1961 and 1963 during The Freedom Rides and Operation Open City.
And there is so much blood.
There is so much blood, so much ferocious anger, so many heads smashed against floors and so many skulls caved in by police batons. Never mind the water cannons then rabid, salivating dogs unleashed against school children by Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor in Alabama. These were not college students but school children aged 7 upwards and nearly a thousand were arrested on May 2nd 1963 during their peaceful protest.
All this very real horror - this leering and jeering and sneering and snarling and spitting and mob attacks by white civilians and policemen and militia upon defenceless black pacifists - is depicted unflinchingly by Nate Powell (SWALLOW ME WHOLE, ANY EMPIRE, THE YEAR OF THE BEASTS, SOUNDS OF YOUR NAME). It is at times claustrophobic when The Freedom Riders are trapped on buses which were firebombed... or penned in a waiting room in the dark surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan and affiliated officials and laymen... or thrown into prison for refusing to endorse segregation by paying their fines, so left at the mercy of vicious prison officers given free rein by their equally malicious governor, Fred Jones, away from any possibility of being caught on camera.
In one savage onslaught a woman holding a baby screams at the quiet and respectful pacifists simply standing their ground by standing in line, "GET THE NIGGERS! GET THE NIGGERS!" and it is all one can do not to weep.
This self-contained volume of the trilogy - which began in MARCH BOOK 1 with John Lewis' childhood then early sit-ins at whites-only cafeterias which were later, here, met with a lock-in and fumigation - is yet again intercut with the Inauguration of America's first black President, Barrack Obama, in Washington DC on January 20th 2009.
There is an arresting double-page spread of Aretha Franklin, right arm flung wide, singing her heart and soul out at the ceremony in an electric rendition of 'My Country, 'Tis Of Thee', its lyrics splashed across the paper from border to border:
"LONG MAY OUR LAND BE BRIGHT,
WITH FREEDOM'S HOLY LIGHT,
PROTECT US BY THY MIGHT,
OH LET FREEDOM RING!"
All of which is juxtaposed against a montage of memories - the price which the fight for that freedom cost while those selfsame words were being sung so patriotically but emptily by others - of a policeman casually, dispassionately lighting a cigarette and of the bandaged, bloodied bodies the police were (either directly or through their culpable, collaborative refusal to protect) responsible for.
It's a testament to Nate Powell that not once do the hundreds of individuals depicted here seem generic: the first black and white Freedom Riders defying transportation segregation by sitting together, each of them identified; the young girl who will not be moved even as a speeding truck screeches to a halt in front of her then revs threateningly, angrily as its driver contemplates running her right over; another schoolgirl on May 2nd 1963 asking for no more than the basic right to freedom as dozens of her fellow protestors are bundled into a police van.
As well as identifying each individual member of the SNCC and the specific, heroic roles they played at each juncture, John Lewis names and shames those who engaged in overt racism on a local, State or national level even as a seemingly powerless government failed to enforce integration, Attorney General Robert Kennedy being completely ignored.
Mendacity was rife.
You may have wondered about the back cover, as I surely did: the stained glass window, the face of Christ smashed in, letting a white light shine through. It was actually night-time on May 21st 1961, to be precise.
"After hearing of the violence at the bus station, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Montgomery. A mass meeting was called at Ralph Abernathy's church. Governor Patterson, despite promising to protect us, has warrants sworn out for our arrest."
Yet another angry mob swelled outside, that brick breached the stained glass window but the troops supposedly sent to protect the church's vulnerable occupants did nothing of the sort.
"General Henry Graham of the Alabama National Guard, a real estate agent in his civilian life, refused to allow anyone to leave."
Worst of all was that Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor, determined to deport any Freedom Riders who finally made it to Birmingham, Alabama, without their bus being firebombed after letting the mob have its way. Asked on television why there were no police officers at the bus station, he replied:
"Mother's Day. We try and let off as many of our policemen as possible, so they can spend Mother's Day at home with their families."
As I said: mendacity.
"We found out later that he'd promised the Ku Klux Klan fifteen minutes with the bus before he'd make any arrests."
May 18th 1961 seemed most terrifying to me. After Lewis et al had been banged up in police cells yet again, towards midnight Chief Connor made a personal visit.
"I'm putting you people under protective custody, and sending you all the way back to Nashville where you belong. And just to make sure you get there... I'm gonna ride along."
All the way back to Nashville...? No. As soon as they reached the Tennessee line, the men and women were summarily ejected from the car in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere without transportation... right in the heart of Klan country.
What this gripping graphic novel makes abundantly clear over and over again is that it is a miracle John Lewis survived to end up where he needed to be: in Washington for the march on August 28th 1963 as chairman of the SNCC. It wasn't a day without conflict - this time from within - but it did prove a milestone in American history.
However, it isn't where the book ends, I'm afraid. Someone always has to get the last word in.
It ends on September 15th 1963, outside the Baptist Church of Sixteenth Street, Birmingham, Alabama.