The good troublemakers

John Lewis’s graphic memoir March teaches young readers about the importance of remembering the civil rights struggles

Updated - January 22, 2017 12:36 am IST

Published - January 22, 2017 12:10 am IST

Some years ago, I was reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus , a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, when my younger son, then five years old, wanted to know what the book was about.

“Why do the people have the faces of mice and cats?” he asked.

“Why do you think they do?” I asked him.

He thought for a moment. “Cats catch mice,” he replied. Then he added: “But they can’t help it.” (He knew this because we have a pet cat, though she has never met a mouse.) “These drawings aren’t of cats. They just have the faces of cats. They’re people. Are these people with cat faces being mean to the mice?”

I nodded. He had got it. “Is this a real story?” he asked.

One of the hardest conversations with children — much harder than talking about birds and bees — is about injustice. We teach children to be fair and to expect fairness in return. This is the essence of parenting. Don’t use your hands when you’re angry; use words. Don’t use mean words; use words to say what you mean. Be kind. Be fair.

But how does one teach children to respond when the world isn’t fair? How do we teach them to handle discrimination, to stand up for others, to make the world a better place? To go high, as Michelle Obama said, when others go low?

The power of books

One of the critical ways to teach children about tolerance and justice is through reading. Reading takes children outside the bubbles in which we try to protect them, and into the lives of others far removed from them. Reading teaches empathy. It gives universal power to individual stories. It talks about things that we aren’t sure how to talk about and says things that we often don’t know how to say. It speaks to the imagination and to the heart.

Last week, I ordered a set of American civil rights hero John Lewis’s three-volume graphic memoir March . John Lewis is one of the iconic figures of the American civil rights movement. As a student, he applied to Troy State University even though he knew blacks weren’t allowed there. It was one of his first acts of protest against segregation. “The boy from Troy”, as Martin Luther King Jr. described Lewis, chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the leaders in the student-led sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. At the legendary 1963 March on Washington, John Lewis was one of the youngest speakers. In 1965, he helped lead the historic Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement.

This National Book Award-winning collaboration between John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell presents an affecting first-hand account of the struggle for civil rights. At the National Book Award function, Lewis recalled how in 1956, as a little boy, he wasn’t allowed a library card at his local rural library because of his race. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, said Santayana. March is an attempt to remind young readers about one of the most important civil rights struggles of the 20th century. It is a struggle that still continues. The memoir uses the 2009 inauguration of former U.S. President Barack Obama as a frame for its civil rights narrative. “Because of you, John,” wrote Obama on a card that he gave to Lewis on that historic day. “Because of you”, thereby tracing a line back from that cold January morning in 2009 to the story of the American struggle for civil rights and voting rights.

There is another line in the narrative, another ‘Because of you’ that goes further back from the struggles in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s to India and the freedom struggle led by Gandhi. “Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King,” writes Lewis in his list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for the sit-in protests. “Love and non-violence is the way.”

The cover of the first volume shows a group of protesters sitting at a lunch counter. Their faces are tense, nervous, but determined. On the counter before them are ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, sugar, tissues and a sign that says “Counter Closed”. This is what the protesters are up against.

The story begins on the morning of what would later be called Bloody Sunday. It begins on the Edmund Pettus bridge across the Alabama river. A line of marchers is on the bridge, and the state troopers are at the other end. “Can you swim?” Hosea Williams asks John Lewis, at the head of the march. “No,” says Lewis. “Well, neither can I,” replies Hosea. “But we might have to.”

Moments in the memoir

Historical events are often brought to life in graphic novels in ways that are beyond the scope of textbooks. There are many unforgettable moments in this powerful work: the rich detail as the visuals zoom in to look at the anxiety in a person’s eyes or zoom out to look at the vast fields over which the volunteers trudge day after day. The way the words and music of the movement’s songs curve around the panels, linking past to present, first softly and then soaring in epic, poetic fashion: “They say that freedom is a constant struggle/ They say that freedom is a constant struggle/ Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long, we must be free/ We must be free…”

One of the most moving moments in the memoir is the search for the three missing volunteers in Mississippi. A line of dark trees, a few stars in the night-time sky, a small triangle of torchlight on the grass. A voice: “You see anything?” And then, on the next page, pitch black, a forlorn silhouette in grey, and the tiniest, saddest, most exhausted of responses: “No.”


March is about how social heroes are made, through courage and non-violence, and about what Lewis describes as “good trouble: to find a way to get in the way”. It is also about the power of books themselves as manuals in the quest for social justice. One of the early sources of Lewis’s own inspiration was a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story , a 16-page, 10-cent narrative about non-violent resistance for desegregation.

“Sometimes going to school was a luxury my family couldn’t afford,” Lewis reflects about his childhood. He hid from his parents and ran to catch the school bus in the mornings instead of working on the farm. The school library was a place of discovery. After the first time he heard a speech by Martin Luther King, he says: “I went to the school library on Monday to find out everything I could about this man.”

This week, as we read the part about the first march from Selma, on Bloody Sunday, my nine-year-old peered closely at the picture of John Lewis lying on the ground, a puddle of grey stones around his forehead. “That’s blood!” said my son, shocked. “He’s bleeding. That’s blood dripping from his head.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Is this a real story?” he asked me quietly.

“Yes,” I replied.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS and is currently based in Bengaluru.

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