Unit 4, Assignment 2 – Emily Ezell

Senator John Lewis dedicates much of his graphic novel to the Freedom Riders—with the perspective of both an outsider and a participant. Artist Nate Powell represents these different perspectives through a variety of graphic elements; such as full-page illustrations, text-based descriptions, and powerful representations of violence. Particularly powerful, the scene depicted on page 47 successfully conveys the tension, violence, and chaos of the Civil Rights Movement. The page illustrates various reactions to the news of flames engulfing the Freedom Riders’ bus in Anniston, Alabama. Lewis writes that he returned to Nashville to “attend a picnic to celebrate the fact the after fourteen weeks of stand-ins, the city’s theatre owners had finally agreed to desegregate” (46).  However, the news of the burning bus interrupts the celebration. One panel depicts a radio with a static speech bubble quoting the news headlines. After this simple panel, chaos fills the next page. Speech bubbles, onomatopoeias, and movement fill the page. The radio remains a constant, telling Lewis and his friends of the dramatic event. This continuity emphasizes the significance of the fire on the Freedom Rides and its impact on other members of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, people rush to phones and clatter around to seek more information about the breaking news. Speech bubbles shout expressions of shock and concern: Hey! Turn it up! Hello? Yes? Harsh lines and angles slowly fade to softer shapes as the pandemonium calms. Unlike a purely textual description of Lewis’s response to the Freedom Riders’ burning bus, the pictorial depiction evokes a more emotionally connected response.  The reader’s eye dashes across the page, prompting confused, concern reactions. The rhetoric of the imagery conveys a heightened understanding by forcing the reader to interact with and respond to the story. As a reader, I found the story more moving and empowering because of its imagery. The authors’ choice to tell Lewis’s experience with the Civil Rights Movement as a graphic novel demonstrates the power of expression without a dependency on text.

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