The first volume of this three part set of graphic novels was released in 2013. The second and third volumes came later in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The synopsis for book three of the series states that the aim of the three authors, including civil rights icon John Lewis, was to “bring the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world.” Those words are absolutely achingly true. For the purposes of this review, I will just be focusing on this first volume, but all three are important for understanding the historical and cultural significance of the impact John Lewis had for the civil rights movement.
Book 1 begins with John Lewis’s humble beginnings growing up in Troy, Alabama. It discusses his call to religion and his subsequent call to activism following his introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr., and other inspirational leaders of the civil rights movement. These individuals encouraged a push for change through peaceful protest. We get to see, through his perspective, the harrowing test that he and fellow activists endured when they staged the famous sit-ins at lunch counters across the deep south. They faced harassment, physical violence, and arrest, but they never backed down from their cause. Book 1 ends on the steps of city hall with a powerful scene in which the fruits of their labor are finally realized as foes slowly turn into allies after people in power gain the courage to stand against the loud voices working against progress.
There are many great books about the Civil Rights movement. There are numerous titles for adults and mature teens who want to learn about the history of the movement and the courage of the people who inspired it and followed it. But there’s something incomprehensibly powerful about the format for these books. Comics and graphic novels are immeasurably popular with a younger demographic. In the 1950’s, kids like John Lewis were introduced to a comic called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Those boys and girls went on to change history. The inspiration they gleaned from a comic book sparked a fire of purpose within a generation of children.
Today, we find ourselves at a precipice. Our young people are growing up in a world in which they see two sides across a divided line seething with judgment and resentment. They see anger, fear, and death. They see broken people fighting forces they don’t understand simply because they are afraid and were never instilled with the principles of grace and compassion. But once again, if it makes its way into their hands, they can see a history that’s full of change brought about by love and by peace. They see people who succeeded in changing the world not by slashing and burning but by standing strong in the face of evil, arm in arm with people who share the same passion. They had power because they had something worth fighting for, and they were prepared for the push back.
So my review for this book is not simply that it’s a brilliant, authentic, and deeply personal memoir from one of the most important figures in American civil rights history. It is all those things and more. The value this book holds is that it comes at a vitally important time. It’s a testament to the fact that times have always been tough. Maybe they always will be, but there’s another way to bring about change. There will always be people resistant to change. But as long as we have people who will stand alongside one another linked by love and a desire to heal rather than hurt, we will always keep moving forward instead of backward.
As far as content, this book is superb. It is an unflinching look at the period, however. It has some very foul language, but don’t use that as a reason not to let the young people in your life read it. This story would lack the power if Lewis had taken out the racial slurs. A cut can’t heal without the original slicing of the blade. This book shows the power of words, both to wound and to heal. We have to experience the bad or we could never understand the necessity for the good. Children will learn these words one way or another. It’s best for them to learn it in a format that helps them understand the gravity of the words so that they better understand why they are never to be uttered. This book is beautiful, powerful, and the artwork really helps bring the history to life. I highly recommend this series.
Published August 13 2013 by Top Shelf Productions; ISBN 1603093001; Paperback; 128 pages. Place in reading challenge: #15 – Own Voices Story.
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