I bought John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March: Book 1 last year in a frenzy of buying graphic novels on sale. I started reading it before Trump decided to go after John Lewis on Twitter.
I was born just a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I grew up in a predominantly white, liberal bubble in Austin, Texas. My mother was more politically minded, but my parents were both aware of, and opposed to racism. In school, my teachers were mostly white and mostly liberal. But segregation and the Civil Rights Movement were taught as if they had happened a long time ago, and as if there was no longer a need for a civil rights movement. The court ordered desegregation of Austin public schools was enforced beginning with my 6th grade year, but somehow that was unrelated to the lessons we learned about Rosa Parks.
At 12, I was put into a school that was not predominantly white for the first time. It had been a predominantly black and Hispanic school before the white kids were forced to go there, and the school looked like it. Don’t worry folks. I was a smart kids and a white, middle class kid, so I got put in the gifted and talented classes, which were predominantly white. So the school system made sure I stayed in my white bubble. There were always just enough non-white students and teachers around so that we could all pretend we were in a post-racial world.
Why am I talking about my almost entirely white upbringing when I’m supposed to be talking about John Lewis? Because I was shaped by the systems that resist John Lewis and the Civil Rights movement. As liberal as my parents were, as much as they wanted me to have fewer prejudices, they wanted me to have a good education more. Getting a good education in Austin, Texas meant staying in a bubble of middle class whiteness. My classmates who were less well off had more diverse classrooms with fewer resources and overwhelmed teachers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to see how my educational experiences exemplify “separate is not equal.” I may have been in the same building, but my Gifted and Talented classes were almost all white. That seemed completely normal to me. As an adult, I realized that it sent a clear message that white people were smarter and more capable. I’ve been unlearning that nonsense for a couple of decades now.
So back to John Lewis. John Lewis had to struggle for an education that was not supported by the state. When he was in high school, the first Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down declaring segregation in schools unconstitutional. Nothing changed for him. The Civil Rights Movement was starting to happen just 50 miles away in Montgomery. Lewis was able to go to a bible college in Nashville on a work/study program. He met Dr. King, began to train for non violent protest and became a part of the movement. Along the way, he is frequently under threat of violence, and later arrest.
March: Book 1 starts on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, moves up in time to the inauguration of Barack Obama, back to John Lewis’ childhood and through the successful Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and the development of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Andrew Aydin turns John Lewis’ stories into a smooth narrative. Nate Powell’s shades of grey pencil drawings are powerful.
Two of my closest friends, both of whom also went to predominantly white schools, have prioritized diversity when selecting their children’s schools. My friends’ kids think it’s normal to be in the minority. I’m sure they will have other assumptions and prejudices to unpack as adults, but I hope they are a couple of steps ahead of where I am now. Whatever I do to unpack my own prejudices and recognize the ways that I partipate in oppressive systems, I do so at little to no cost to myself. No one will arrest me, beat me, or kill me. Because I am white, my life is not in danger.