Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, Illustrated by Nate Powell
Book Review by Karl Foster, Staff

Sometimes there are two Americas. This has been said many times. 

John Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organised the 1963 March on Washington, played many key roles and actions in the Civil Rights Movement and to end racial segregation in the United States. 

Today he is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. 

Published in three parts this graphic novel helps understand the distinct phases of John Lewis’ career in activism. 

Book One: Lunch counter sit ins. Book Two: Freedom Rides and the March on Washington (including John’s most famous speech). Book Three: Voter Rights, 1964 US Election (The election of L.B. Johnson) and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery 

It begins with Inauguration of Barack Obama’s, the 44th US President and is used as a counterpoint for John’s activities in his earlier life for desegregation and emancipation. Events take place from 1940 – 2009 during the most extraordinary period of US history.  

As a young man he is called to seek justice by the voice of God, believes in non-violent protest at a time when universal hostility towards black people by the US system and the white population was the order of the day. A radical departure. Living by the simple notion to engage peacefully with people who feared change and denied the possibility that African Americans could ever be their equal. He and many others challenged the segregation of the American South that had existed since the abolition of slavery. The further South he travels the more he is drawn into the heart of darkness.  

A tale of bravery and conviction at a time when courage and beliefs could mean the loss of job, personal injury, imprisonment or death. African American deaths were not a priority for investigators. The South was littered with victims of hatred and white supremacist ideology. Murders of white activists in Mississippi brought the media running in. The story says things can improve, that ignorance overcome, that Government can make concessions and enforce the law. 

Monochrome Illustrations capture the period and intensity of the movements in their desire for progressive change. Scenes of church bombing in Birmingham are vivid and the expression of dignity of oppressed peaceful protestors comes across well. These images set the scene for a world that revolved around the actions of CORE, NAACP, SCLC and SNCC. Natural rivalries and divisions but these were mostly generational. All agreed that change was necessary. Speed and intensity fuelled these debates. 

He survived this tumultuous period despite others close to him paying the ultimate price. The novel asks, “What would you be prepared to do or risk for what is right?” Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., opposites, became social activists rather than purely racial champions both died for the same ideal.  

The trilogy has extra coverage and sales thanks to John Lewis’ spat with the 45th US President. The current US situation demands a return to the protests that shaped our present and may protect our future. 

Photos taken by Caroline Thomson

Publishers website
Authors website 
Illustrators website 
Reviewer’s blog 

This article was originally written and published in Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education Zine 1 (2018).

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