It is rare for an engaging work of graphic history to be told from the perspective
of a central figure in that history itself—yet that is precisely the case with
John Lewis’s personal account of the U.S. civil rights movement. As such,
the autobiographical trilogy March provides a unique opportunity for exploring an eyewitness report of important events while simultaneously studying
the memoir form: it represents “literacy across the disciplines” of the most
authentic sort. In addition, its main idea—how to overcome violence and
injustice through nonviolence—remains vitally resonant today.
THE STORYTELLER: AN ICON OF CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY
Congressman John Lewis (b. 1940) first joined the civil
rights movement as a college student in Nashville, organizing sit-ins and participating in the first Freedom Rides.
He soon became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the “Big Six”
national leaders of the movement, alongside such figures as
Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. He was the
youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and a
leader of the 1965 Selma–Montgomery March (known as
“Bloody Sunday”), where police brutality spurred national
outrage and hastened passage of the Voting Rights Act of
1965. His subsequent career has included voter registration activism, service on the Atlanta
City Council, and over 25 years in Congress.
Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and was the first recipient
of the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award. His 1998 book
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, called “the definitive account of the civil
rights movement” (The Washington Post), won numerous honors, including the Robert F.
Kennedy, Lillian Smith, and Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, and was named “Top of the List”
by the American Library Association’s Booklist. His most recent book, Across that Bridge: Life
Lessons and a Vision for Change, received the NAACP Image Award.
A NOTE TO EDUCATORS & LIBRARIANS FROM JOHN LEWIS
When I was a young man, a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
was used by Jim Lawson and others to spread the word about our movement and teach the philosophy
of nonviolence. I believe comic books and graphic novels can again be a tool to educate and inspire new
generations. It has been a great joy for me to work on this graphic novel, and I hope you will find it
useful in your schools and libraries. I am truly grateful for your hard work
COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS
As an exemplar—perhaps even a mentor
text—of the personal memoir, March consistently aligns with the “Reading: Informational Text” strand across all secondary grade
levels in English Language Arts. This strand
comprises three areas of focus which this
Teaching Guide calls out via the following
- Key Ideas and Details
- Craft and Structure
- Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
In addition, the seventh standard (the first
under “Integration of Knowledge and
Ideas”) emphasizes the skills involved in
reading various media, a goal that the graphic storytelling in March naturally supports.
These alignments are called out in the Discussion Questions with the above icons,
while the two student worksheets provide
additional reinforcement related to “Craft
THE NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR THE SOCIAL STUDIES
The National Council for the Social Studies
(NCSS) has identified ten key themes for
teaching and learning within the discipline,
and these are listed below. While virtually
all of March correlates extremely well to the
tenth theme, “Civic Ideals and Practices,”
the pages that follow highlight additional
- Time, Continuity, and Change
- People, Places, and Environment
- Individual Development and Identity
- Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
- Power, Authority, and Governance
- Production, Distribution,
- Science, Technology, and Society
- Global Connections
- Civic Ideals and Practices
Consider the following strategies as you plan your scaffolding for individual students, paying
special attention to how graphic storytelling can both enhance and challenge reading comprehension.
- Keep in mind that the comics medium does not necessarily make things“easy”for readers—
the combination of print and art often conveys subtle meanings in addition to what each of
these text tracks communicates by itself.
- For dialogue, point out that both the style of the lettering and the shape of the word balloons indicate the tone, cadence, and volume of speech. Sometimes speech is not even meant
to be “heard” in detail but rather as a kind of general sound or murmur.
- Provide comprehension support by discussing sections where either the storytelling or its
meaning is elliptical and therefore potentially difficult. A good example involves the final
two pages (pp. 121–122). Ask students why Dr. King’s speech occurs “over” the episode at
Burger Junction—and why does the book end with an incoming call? How might that
image be not only a reference to the mysterious call on p.15, but a symbol of a metaphorical
call to the reader?
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS
- Point out that the sound effects that are present throughout
frequently use unconventional (and purely phonetic) spellings such as nok nok and klik (pp. 61, 69)
- Pair ELLs with native speakers of English who can define
words in passages that are heavy with content area vocabulary
that has not been explicitly taught. An example of this occurs
during the courtroom scene on page 107.
- Model for students how to use the art’s facial expressions,
patterns of light and darkness, and variations in lettering as
context clues that can help indicate mood, emotion, or the
main idea when some of the vocabulary may be unfamiliar (p. 27).
Build/activate background knowledge
about the Civil Rights Movement as
needed, since the text assumes that
readers have some prior knowledge
of both the U.S. South during the
Jim Crow era and the nonviolent tactics employed by Martin Luther King,
Jr. and his followers beginning in the
mid-1950s. For example, March starts
without preamble, introductory narrative, or even its framing device—
readers may not recognize the Edmund
Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, but
they are expected to understand the
basic context of African Americans
peacefully staging a protest march and
why that might be met by violent
opposition from a local police force.
1. 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? What about people and
concepts not mentioned explicitly in the text but which inform the
politics depicted, such as Thoreau and “civil disobedience”?
2. What do you know about other cultural and historical figures mentioned in the text such as Thurgood Marshall (pp. 106, 111), Ralph
Bunche, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry Belafonte (p. 109)?
3. To what political or legal ideas/rulings do we owe such terms such as “unlawful assembly”
(p. 6) and “separate but equal”?
4. Why does the framing story take
place on January 20, 2009? What is
the significance of that date to the
civil rights movement?
Encourage students to employ comprehension strategies while reading by asking them to
use a reader-response journal to record any thoughts sparked by the following prompts.
1. Where does understanding March require that you make inferences? What are those inferences, and how does the comics medium both rely on inference-making and provide
the necessary visual clues? Examples include “the opposite is just as true” with respect to
non-violence (p. 100), Lewis’s attitude toward the ministers he knew in his youth (p. 54), and
“it took a toll” (p. 25) in relation to how he “forced” hens to set longer than they naturally
2. What predictions can you make—and confirm—while reading? How do the book’s flashbacks and flashforwards affect your predictions? For example, when Lewis makes the decision to leave home to attend college (pp. 64–65), will the role of his family in his life become
diminished? (This can be confirmed on pp. 71–72.) Similarly, how do you think the training
in non-violence (pp. 80–82) will work in the real world—how is it similar to, and different
from, the situations encountered by Lewis in the Nashville sit-ins (pp. 99–102) or the march
that opens the book (pp. 8–9)? Overall, how is your reading
of Lewis’ story affected by your knowledge that Lewis will
eventually reach the House of Representatives (pp. 16–20)?
3. How do you think that the details of Lewis’s early life,
especially distinctive traits and actions such as “preaching” to
the chickens (p. 28) or disobeying his parents to attend school
(p. 50–53), might foreshadow later events or his personal values?
See Worksheet #1 and Worksheet #2 in the Resources Section below.
In addition to discussing the following questions, you may also want to review individual
responses to the reproducible student pages in this Guide. Those pages can be distributed
prior to reading to aid comprehension and recall, or completed after reading as a form of
1. Why might this trilogy be entitled “March”? How many marches can you find depicted
or mentioned in March: Book One (front and back covers, pp. 5–9, 19–20, 88, 90–91, 96,
110, 116, 117)? Analyze the multiple meanings, and connotations, of the word march with
respect to the “how far we’ve come” theme (p. 19) that runs throughout the frame story.
Specifically, how do the actions of Lewis and his comrades exemplify the defining characteristics of marching, such as being resolute, unified, and steady? If the word is usually used to
describe the movement of an army, what is the significance of nonviolent groups doing the
same? Finally, how might John Lewis’ line “We have to march,” in response to the bombing
of the Loobys’ house (p. 116), signal the climax of the book?
2. How does nonviolent resistance
as espoused by Gandhi, King, and
Lawson (pp. 76–77) work to bring
about social change, and how does
it compare to other methods? 10 9
Contrast the violence which opens
the book with the emphasis on the
“peaceful transition to power” in the
2009 television’s broadcast (p. 14) and
the similarly peaceful, largely silent
pages (pp. 10-12) that precede it. What
is the historical message implied by this
3. In what ways do Lewis’s religious background and values influence his approach to the
struggle for civil rights as well as the movement as a whole (e.g., pp. 8, 27–28, 56, 104)? 1
Do you feel that love of one’s attacker is a requirement for effective nonviolent resistance (p.
82), and are there any signs of it in the book (p. 95)?
4. History is often considered to be made up of recorded facts. In contrast, what important
role might subjective factors such “dreams” and “fate” play in history, according to March?
Trace the theme of wishes, dreams, and the “spirit of history” during the course of the book
(pp. 19, 25–26, 50, 73, 87, 113). When the alarm clock on page 13 goes off, in what ways
might it signify the end of a nightmare, or the transition from a dream to a reality, in terms
of national race relations? Does the inauguration of Barack Obama represent the complete
fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, or merely a step?
5. The phrase “law and order”
seems to imply that maintaining social order is an important
function of police and other law
enforcement authorities. But
what happens when preserving
the existing status quo makes
such authorities the instigators
of violence rather than those
who protect citizens from it (pp.
6, 101)? How should individuals and groups respond when
the justice system itself is bent
to serve certain positions and
interests (p. 107)?
6. What is the relationship between geography, community,
and politics in March? As just
one example, how does the isolation of the chickens in their
henhouse reflect the isolation
of Lewis’s family on their farm
(pp. 20–22, 28)? What visual elements help convey these ideas? Similarly, how does the trip to Buffalo, with its bright lights
and vertical heights (p. 42) that mirror the scale of Lewis’s aspirations for himself and society,
illustrate his dawning sense of possibilities both figuratively and literally (as a Northern city
free of the everyday prejudices of the South)? On the other hand, in what ways does the
rural community of Alabama exemplify the notion of a tight-knit community despite being
spread out geographically (pp. 58, 72)?
7. To practice a crucial skill when reading the memoir form,
identify and analyze the “turning points” in John Lewis’s life.
Some of these the text’s language highlights for us, as in “home
never felt the same” (p. 66), Jim Lawson’s words signaling a
“way out” (p. 78) and “my first arrest” (p. 103). What would
you add to such a group? For example, is the attempt to transfer to Troy State (p. 66) a turning point even if does not work
out? How do the authors use the visual layout of their pages
to emphasize important moments and emotions (for example,
by giving a large amount of space to a single image, up to a full
page or “splash page”)?
8. What does the book’s portrayal of various media tell us about their relationship to social
and political change? As a youth, Lewis himself supplements firsthand accounts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with those communicated via radio and newspaper (p. 59), and a comic
book turns out to be an important way to learn of Martin Luther King’s ideas (pp. 76, 87).
What conclusions might we draw from such examples? To be more specific, how would you
disseminate new ideas and coordinate political actions if you did not have access to tools such
as email, mobile phones, and the Internet?
9. What role did economic factors play in the process of desegregation? Specifically,ifAfrican
Americans had represented a far smaller part of the buying public, do you think tactics such
as boycotts and sit-ins would have been as effective? (pp. 59, 83–84, 92–93, 96, 110) What
example of economic freedom early in March may have inspired Lewis by providing a model
of what racially integrated commerce looks like in practice (pp. 42-45)?
10. How do the events depicted in March connect to your
life personally? Discuss with
an older family member or
friend their memories of the
early 1960s and the civil rights
movement. Alternatively, is
there a modern-day issue for
which you might be willing to
take a stand? Would you use the
same techniques as the Nashville Student Movement, or a
different strategy? Has reading
March changed your perspective, and if so, how?
Worksheet #1 - Shifting Points of View
See PDF of Worksheet Below
Worksheet #2 - Timeline Graphic Organizer
See PDF of Worksheet Below
FOR FURTHER READING AND VIEWING
Additional Titles in This Series
March: Book Two (With Teaching Guide!)
March: Book Three
The titles listed below touch on themes such as government’s mistreatment of citizens, life under Communism, resiliency, community, and the importance of a connection to the natural world.
Burmese Moons (With Teaching Guide!)
They Called Us Enemy also (With Teaching Guide!)
Here are some multimedia resources that can be used to build background prior to reading,
enrich discussion after reading, or function as media texts to which March can be compared
and contrasted per the seventh standard of CCSS’s “Informational Text” strand. Readers
might especially appreciate hearing Lewis talk about his life in his own speaking voice, and
consider how that voice is similar and different to that of the graphic novel.
- The Tennessean, the major newspaper of Nashville, has built a very informative multimedia web site about the Nashville student protests, including in-depth profiles of John
Lewis, Diane Nash, and other key people and places featured in March. Students can view
videos, photos, timelines, and even a Google Map of the protests.
- CSPAN’s BookTV conducted a one-hour video interview with John Lewis in 1998
for his memoir Walking with the Wind. This web site includes the video as well as a full
This guide was developed and written by Peter Gutierrez. A former social studies teacher, Gutierrez is a
spokesperson on comics and graphic novels for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). He
has written about comics in education for School Library Journal, The Graphic Classroom, and Teachers College
Press, and has authored teaching guides for acclaimed graphic nonfiction titles such as Economix and My Friend
Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts).
ADVISORY ON LANGUAGE
Please note that, 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.