Friday, February 07, 2014

First Steps! March: Book One by John Lewis

By noon, thousands of people had gathered at Tennessee State University to march on City Hall.

Martin Luther King came and said, "I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.

No lie can live forever. Let us not despair.

Walk together, children."

It makes sense that the progress of  American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s came to be called "The Movement," because sitting down, and standing up for equal rights, walking, and marching en masse all played a pivotal role. As one elderly  Montgomery bus-boycotting grandmother, trudging to work, said, "I'm not walking for myself. I'm walking for my children and my grandchildren."

John Lewis and Andrew Aydin's 2014 Coretta Scott King Award-winning March:  Book 1 (Top Shelf Productions, 2013) begins with a dream sequence as a crowd begins its ill-fated march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a dark dream from which Congressman John Lewis awakens early on January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day.

As Lewis enters his office at the Capitol that morning, a mother and a couple of children happen by, and he invites them in. As he explains the photos and framed documents on his wall, Lewis tell the boys about his sharecropping childhood, his beloved flock of chickens, his struggles to stay in school even when his father ordered him to stay home to work on the farm, and how his early experiences brought him to be on Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, to be beaten senseless, but to survive to help lead the Civil Rights Movement forward.

But his role didn't begin at the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.  It really began when he and others schooled in the ways of non-violent resistance began sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee. Students from nearby Tennessee State University organized sit-ins at lunch counters downtown. At first they politely left when service was refused, but as the movement grew, white students joined them. Still refused, they tried a new tactic. They simply sat and did not leave. The lunch counters were closed, and the lights were turned off, and still they remained. Arrested, they refused bail and filled the local jail.

Frustrated, the police considered leaving the demonstrators to the groups of armed whites, people who boasted they would beat the students until they gave up. Finally a leader's home was bombed. A call went out and the students were able to bring forth thousands of black and white supporters who filled the streets of downtown Nashville, all marching to City Hall to call out the Mayor. The Mayor agreed that their cause was just, and soon Nashville quietly integrated its public places. It was only one step on the road to full civil rights, but those relentlessly marching feet finally changed the country.

Written in the format of a graphic novel, this graphic memoir traces one major episode of the Civil Rights Movement witnessed by John Lewis as he lived it. Drawn in black and white with great impact by Nate Powell, the neo-comic-book format offers a new way for middle readers to experience these signal events through the eyes of someone still living, someone who was there to take every step, from Nashville, to Selma, to the March on Washington, and through a long career in Congress. Along with other first-person accounts, this book offers young people a unique chance to understand that critical period in American history. Kirkus Reviews calls this one "... a powerful tale of courage and principle igniting sweeping social change, told by a strong-minded, uniquely qualified eyewitness."

To round out a unit for Black History Month, include this new one with Russell Freedman's Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Andrea Davis Pinkney's account of the Greensboro sit-ins, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Jane Addams Honor Book (Awards)), Shelley Tougas' Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration (Captured History), Kathleen Krull's What Was the March on Washington? and Cristine King Farris' March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World.

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