How John Lewis' March Trilogy Can Teach Students About Civil Rights

A Graphic Novel Memoir on the Struggle for Civil Rights

March-Trilogy Cover.

March is a comic book-style trilogy that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis in the nation's struggle for civil rights. The graphics in this memoir make the text engaging for its target audience, students in grades eight-12. Teachers can use the slim paperbacks (under 150 pages) in the social studies classroom because of the content and/or in the language arts classroom as a new form in the genre of memoir.

March is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist  Nate Powell. The project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the civil rights movement.

Congressman Lewis, Representative from the 5th District in Georgia, is well respected for his work for Civil Rights during the 1960s when he served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Aydin convinced Congressman Lewis that his own life story could serve as the basis for a new comic book, a graphic memoir that would highlight the major events in the struggle for Civil Rights.  Aydin worked with Lewis to develop the trilogy's storyline: Lewis' youth as a sharecropper’s son, his dreams of becoming a preacher, his nonviolent participation in the sit-ins at department-store lunch counters of Nashville, and in coordinating the 1963 March on Washington to end segregation.

Once Lewis agreed to coauthor the memoir, Aydin reached out to Powell, a best-selling graphic novelist who started his own career by self-publishing when he was 14 years old.

The graphic novel memoir  March: Book 1 was released  August 13, 2013. This first book in the trilogy begins with a flashback, a dream sequence that illustrates the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.

The action then cuts to Congressman Lewis as he prepares to watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009.

In March: Book 2 (2015) Lewis' experiences in prison and his participation as a Freedom Bus Rider is set against Governor George Wallace's "Segregation Forever" speech.  The final March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marches.  

March: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner

Teaching guides

Each book in the March trilogy is a text that crosses disciplines and genres. The comic book format, gives Powell the chance to communicate visually the intensity in the struggle for civil rights. While some may associate comic books as a genre for younger readers, this comic book trilogy requires a mature audience. Powell's depiction of the events that changed the course of American history can be disturbing, and the publisher, Top Shelf Productions offers the following cautionary statement:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

While the material in this comic book requires maturity, the format of Powell's illustrations with Aydin's minimal text will engage all levels of readers. English language learners (ELs) can follow the storyline with some contextual support in vocabulary, especially since comic books often represent sound using unconventional and phonetic spellings such as nok nok and klik. For all students, teachers should be prepared to provide some historical background.

To help provide that background, the website page for the March trilogy hosts a number of links to teacher guides which support the reading of the text.

There are links that provide background information on the Civil Rights Movement as well as sets of activities or questions to use. For example, teachers planning on using March Book 1 might organize a KWL activity (what do you know, what do you want to learn, and what have you learned) in order to survey their students' prior knowledge before teaching.

One set of questions they could ask:

"What do you know about major figures, events, and concepts of the period that appear in March such as segregation, the social gospel, boycotts, sit-ins, 'We Shall Overcome,' Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks?"

Another teacher's guide points out how the comic book genre is noted for its variety of layouts, each of which visually provides the reader with different points of view (POV) such as a close-up, a bird's-eye, or at a distance to communicate the story’s action. Powell uses these POVs strategically by showing close-ups on faces during violent attacks or by showing wide landscapes in order to give a perspective on the enormous crowds who attended the marches. In several frames, Powell's artwork infers both physical and emotional pain and in other frames celebration and triumph, all without words.

Teachers can ask students about the comic book format and Powell's techniques:

  • Where does understanding March require that you make inferences?
  • How does the comics medium both rely on inference-making and provide necessary visual clues?

A similar purpose in another teacher’s guide asks students to consider multiple points of view. While a memoir is usually told from a single point of view, this activity provides blank comic bubbles for students to add what others may have been thinking. Adding other points of view can extend their understanding of how others may have seen the Civil Rights Movement.

Some of the teacher's guides ask students to consider how the Civil Rights Movement used communications. Students must think of different ways they could accomplish the changes brought about by John Lewis and SNCC as they did, without access to tools such as email, mobile phones, and the Internet. 

The teaching of March as one story in America's past can also bring attention to issues that are pertinent to today. Students can debate the question: 

"What happens when preserving the existing status quo makes such authorities the instigators of violence rather than those who protect citizens from it ?"

The Rendel Center for Civics and Civil Engagement offers a role-playing lesson plan in which a new student is bullied because he/she is an immigrant. The scenario suggests there is the possibility of a conflict if someone chooses to defend the new student.  Students are challenged to write a scene - individually, in small groups, or as a whole class – “in which the words the characters use for resolution help to solve a problem before it leads to a fight.”

Other extended writing activities include a mock interview with Congressman Lewis, where students imagine that they are a news or blog reporter and have the opportunity to interview John Lewis for an article. Published reviews of the trilogy may serve as models for book review writing or as prompts for students to respond whether they agree or disagree with a review. 

Taking informed action

March is also a text that helps social studies teachers to address the "informed action" described in The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State StandardsC3 Framework) recommended for an active civic life. After reading March, students may understand why engagement in civic life is necessary. The high school standard that encourages students and teacher engagement for grades nine-12 is:

D4.8.9-12. Apply a range of deliberative and democratic strategies and procedures to make decisions and take action in their classrooms, schools, and out-of-school civic contexts.

Picking up on this theme of empowering young people, the Anti-Defamation League also offers practical suggestions on how students can engage in activism, including:

  • write letters to legislators, corporations, local businesses;
  • use social media to promote a cause;
  • advocate for legislation, both local and federal;
  • run for office (if eligible)  and support candidates.

Finally, there is a link to the original 1957 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story that first inspired the March trilogy. In the concluding pages, there are suggestions that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. These suggestions can be used for student activism today:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don't act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don't argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

Lewis's response

Each of the books in the trilogy has been met with critical acclaim. Booklist wrote the trilogy is "one that will resonate and empower young readers in particular," and that the books are, "Essential reading."

After March: Book 3 won the National Book Award, Lewis reiterated his purpose, that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

"It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

In preparing students to be active citizens in the democratic process, teachers will find few texts as powerful and as engaging as the March trilogy to use in their classrooms.