If you teach U.S. History anywhere near the 20th Century I’m going to go ahead and assume that you take some time for the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully even a couple weeks. If you don’t we have bigger issues to discuss and we should probably schedule a one on one meeting to look at your curriculum. (That wasn’t a joke.)
I’m also going to assume that you use a few key texts like King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, or maybe his speech from the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. You might use Brown v. Board. Perhaps you use some texts related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You might show films or clips of films like Selma or Eyes on the Prize. If we’re really lucky you might use something from Malcolm X like The Ballot or the Bullet or even some texts from SNCC or the Black Panthers.
You should also use March.
March is the three volume story of Representative John Lewis’ (D-GA) life in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. The story is told as a series of prolonged flashbacks as Representative Lewis processes the historical significance of President Obama’s election. I recommend all three volumes though you could probably get away with just volume 3. Books for a school or class aren’t cheap.
If you want it in a single sentence March is to the Civil Rights Movement as Maus is to the Holocaust minus the plot line about Art Spiegelman’s issues with his father. And frankly, from a comics standpoint March is a superior piece of work. (Luckily you could use both!)
I’ve written before about how comics can increase interest and accessibility for students and that all remains true here. Volume 3 also won the National Book Award making it the first comic or graphic novel to do so. That could be reason enough.
Unlike many civil rights stories in other media, the experiences of the movement are extremely visceral thanks to Nate Powell’s art. March moved me and helped me identify with Representative Lewis in a way that no prose text or film has done previously. I felt pain when Representative Lewis gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was sick to my stomach when protesters were harassed and taunted by other citizens. I choked up when Powell revealed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church even though I knew it was coming. And I completely broke down at the end when President Obama is inaugurated and he and Representative Lewis exchange a few words. Students need to engage directly with the emotions that March brings up.
It’s easy to just keep using the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s easy to stick with excerpts from “I Have a Dream.” They are known. They are safe. They’re excellent. They also keep the brutality at a distance. The conversations stay intellectual. Those texts avoid images of adult white men beating young black boys. They avoid the emotional pain and embarrassment of being repeatedly turned away from a lunch counter. Of having your church burned to the ground. They avoid the repeated arrests and the reality of putting one’s body on the line for the sake of justice.
March steps directly into that challenging space and as a teacher will force you to do the same. You owe your students an honest representation of historical struggle for justice. The dominant narrative that paints Dr. King as an infallible saint who never disturbed anyone. The dominant narrative tells us Rosa Parks as some tired old lady and does them a disservice and that narrative is a disservice to the movement as a whole.
March places the ownership of the movement in young people. Many young people working together over a long period of time. March is a story of resiliency in the face of oppression that is honest with readers about the time and effort and struggle required to make social change. And it is honest about the risks.
Without the emotional weight and the seriousness of the movement, why even teach it? Teaching the movement is not important because it may come up on the final. Teaching the movement is important because lives were at stake and young people took action. Lives are still at stake and young people can still take action and as educators we have a responsibility to help students realize their own power.