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March Book 3 s/c back

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell


Page 45 Review by Stephen

It begins with a bombing.

It begins where the last book ended with the bombing, on September 15th 1963, of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, full of black school children on its annual Youth Day. It left four young girls - Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair - dead and many more critically injured.

More precisely it begins with four slightly awe-struck young ladies including Denise discussing their nerves about playing music in front a big crowd at the game tomorrow, and the quiet but reassuring clik-tik clik-tik of leather soles on a clinically clean, tiled floor as a kindly woman walks away after gently shooing them out of the toilets and, she hopes, the church.

Moments later, artist Nate Powell shatters a whispered reassurance - and the tranquillity of a sermon preaching love even to one's enemies - with an ear-drum-deafening explosion and monstrous, coal-coloured clouds of impenetrable, toxic smoke followed by chaos and carnage, tear-streaming shouts in search of Denise and her tiny white shoe, torn and bloodied and dangled by its broken, thin white lace.

These deaths were immediately and aggressively celebrated in the streets by white teenagers while, encouraged, a couple of Eagle Scouts picked 13-year-old Virgil Lamar off his bike with a hand-gun. Also murdered: 16-year-old Johnny Robinson, shot in the back by a police officer. He was never indicted.

That's how this begins as we stride ever onwards towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th 1965, when ABC news interrupted its Sunday Movie to show fifteen minutes' footage of the extreme, racist brutality meted out by Alabama State Troopers on the protesters' march to Montgomery. You may remember that well from BOOK 1.

The third and final part in this remarkable first-hand account of the American Civil Rights Movement from Congressman John Lewis could not be more timely given the overt racism of the Republican Party's current candidate for American President and further mendacious attempts right now to restrict voters' registration under the guise of fraud prevention when there is no fraud to speak of. Which particular section of society do you suppose is suffering most from these obstacles?

In MARCH BOOK 1 and MARCH BOOK 2 we witnessed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee et al staging peaceful protests against segregation in schools, cafeterias and public transport. These were met with unbelievable State-endorsed, governor-sanctioned, police brutality, executed with relish.

What became shocking clear - and does so again here - is the split between Country and State: local refusal to obey federal law. When segregation at schools was outlawed nationally, named and shamed State officials not only refused to enact those laws, they ordered the illegal arrest of those protesting the state's illegal non-compliance.

So now we move on to voting.

"In Selma - and throughout most of the South at that time - it was almost impossible for African-Americans to register to vote. In Dallas County, only 2.1% of African-American of voting age were registered."

Oh so many ways were found to thwart anyone of colour attempting to register, even though the Constitution was amended 95 years earlier "to require that no American be denied the right to vote because of race or colour." Seriously.

"Even if a black citizen were able to register, their name would be printed in the local paper... making them a target. The white Citizens Council could pressure their employer to fire them. Their house could be burned down by the KKK. Or worse."

Yes, I'd say what happed to Fannie Lou Hamer was worse. She was indeed fired, arrested and severely beaten simply for attempting to register to vote, which was her constitutional right. If that sounds appalling enough - and if it doesn't, then God help you - the pages in which Mrs. Hamer finally recounts the horrific details, blow by blow, in front of a committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City on August 21, 1964, will make you ill. As Mrs. Hamer concludes:

"Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily... because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
"Thank you."

The testimony was televised by all the major national networks until President Johnson deliberately interrupted it by staging a sham statement from the White House, but the desperate gambit backfired because those same networks then led their evening news broadcasts with Mrs. Hamer's speech instead.

As I wrote previously:

"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."

So it is here as each individual is identified for their specific, heroic endeavours or dissenting points of view, patience with their lack of progress threatening quite understandably to run out. The SNCC's very growth brought with it tensions and many times here things look very bleak indeed for the wider movement as a whole, the SNCC's position within that movement and John Lewis' position within the SNCC.

Nate Powell keeps us riveted through each and every conversation, confrontation and set-back, his lettering so sympathetic to the tone. His art is dark and stark but full of humanity or lack thereof which is, I regret, an enduring feature of humankind.

I can promise you the most stirring of speeches, especially towards the end - one in particular delivered by President Lyndon Johnson following the march to Montgomery - but we're reminded soberly than the deaths didn't stop simply because of any single success. They went on and on as they continue today, and the battle is far from won.

For much, much more, please see our extensive reviews of MARCH BOOK 1 and MARCH BOOK 2.