do not look away…three books of weighty civil rights history

mlk dream posterMonday is MLK Day, 2015. I’ll have a list of five picture books then to add to those you can already find in the Subject Index. Today I have three heftier books, each unpacking a critical moment in the struggle for civil rights.

Each of them offers us an opportunity: To face the pain and suffering and ignominy of racism and racial strife in our country. Or to look away.

It is distressing to read of a sheriff slashing into a peaceful crowd with “rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire.”

Of children crammed like sardines in hot, solitary-confinement cells for hours without water or bathroom privileges.we shall overcome button

Of 20-year-olds executed, their bodies dumped like trash, simply for helping folks register to vote.

It is easier to look away.

 But to understand one another, to learn from the past, to do better in the present, to be agents of healing among all kinds of marginalized communities, we need to know these stories. 

50_years_civil_rights_A3_CMYKThese are longer non-fiction works, superbly written and thoroughly researched. Adults will learn by reading them, yet they are accessible to kids at about age 10 or 11 with help. Few children will read books as text-heavy, serious-looking, and lengthy as these on their own. Few will absorb the text without help clarifying context, geography, and vocabulary. Reading a book together, though, a bit at a time, will open up a world of conversation. You might also read these yourself and share excerpts or paraphrase them for younger children.

Protests, marches, sit-ins, deaths, riots, anguish…these are current events in America. It’s a sadly-perfect time to refresh your memory of what’s gone on before, to feel for yourself the painful memories, to appreciate the leadership behind the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

because they marched cover imageBecause They Marched: The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights that Changed America, by Russell Freedman
published in 2014 by Holiday House

This year, 2015, marks 50 years since the reprehensible events of Selma, Alabama. Bloody Sunday was a brutal day, yet only the most infamous of many violent, insulting, repressive days for Selma’s black residents.

Russell Freedman, whose many historical accounts for young people have earned him well-deserved accolades, presents the bitter history of this small town, one of the most terrible flashpoints of the civil rights movement.

Reaching back a few years from the more famous 1965 marches, Freedmanamelia boynton bloody sunday lays a groundwork by explaining the hateful ways whites blocked blacks from becoming registered voters, the Jim Crow laws, the lynchings and beatings carried out by white supremacists, the efforts by civil rights activists in other southern communities. He devotes a chapter to the stunningly brave leadership of the first SNCC field workers to enter Selma and the equally-brave teenagers who began to protest long before the adult population joined them.

Martin Luther King arrived in Selma in January, 1965, and from that dateselma bloody sunday john lewis until the successful march to Montgomery in March, there are a string of ugly events, described in wrenching detail by Freedman. An abundance of quotes from those involved pulls us into the fearful tensions, humiliation, and brutality of those days.

Because they marched — and were willing to endure fractured skulls, whippings, clubbings, tear gas, and death — the nation’s conscience was awakened and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. This is history that all of us must know.

72 pages with numerous historical, black-and-white photographs, timeline, source notes, and bibliography.

we've got a job cover image cynthia levinsonWe’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, by Cynthia Levinson
published in 2012 by Peachtree

This book opens with a striking scenario: Nine-year-old Audrey tells her mother, “I want to go to jail.” Her parents think that is a good idea, so they help her get ready. Pack her little kit bag. Drive her to a spot in town where she’s sure to get arrested. And go back home.

This, too, is our history.

Two years before the incidents in Selma, children were already helping lead the way in the civil rights movement in Birmingham. The “Negro Church” there had played the key role in gathering support to change the crushing, unjust systems of discrimination, segregation, and police brutality carried out under the authority of commissioner for public safety Bull Connor. 

birmingham child protestersLaw suits, sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, and lobbying had all been implemented. These were met with shocking numbers of bombings and murders. Rather than allow both blacks and whites to use the same city parks, pools, or golf courses, the city closed them all. If whites joined the cause, they were caught up in the flames and attacks as well. 

Birmingham’s entrenched, police-sanctioned racism could only be unseated through extreme means, which is just what the movement’s new “Project Confrontation” was. The aim was for so many non-violent protesters to be arrested that they filled the jails, crippling the courts’ ability to enforce segregation laws.

It was a gutsy move which did not go nearly as smoothly as hoped. People were too intimidated to participate. The brutality of the officers was horrifying. Riots broke out. Agreements were made and broken. 

In this desperate time, young people begged to be allowed to help fill the jails. In desperation, the leadership agreed to this shocking idea.birmingham childrens march

Cynthia Levinson tracks four children who participated in the Birmingham childrens’ marches of 1963. Their awareness, resolve, terrible experiences, and present-day, adult perspectives, bring a uniquely personal, close-up view of those dark days.

Levinson also gives a great deal of space to the breadth of leadership in the Birmingham civil rights community, focusing her lens on those other than Martin Luther King whose voices and ideas shaped the movement there.

156 pages, with many historic photos and sidebars in a pleasing lay-out, plus a timeline, map, source notes, and recommendations for books, films, music, and websites.

freedom summer susan goldman rubin cover imageFreedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by Susan Goldman Rubin
published in 2014 by Holiday House

Sandwiched between 1963 Birmingham and 1965 Selma is Freedom Summer 1964, a concerted effort to register black voters in Mississippi.

With “only 6.4% of eligible blacks in Mississippi” registered to vote, and with violent reprisals against those who attempted to do so — beatings, torture, and murder — a number of civil rights organizations banded together to meet the challenge in a new way.

By recruiting whites.

Hundreds of college students from northern states answered the call to go tofreedom summer from crmvet dot org Mississippi, canvas the towns and countryside, establish Freedom Schools to teach blacks their history and constitutional rights, and try to register voters.

Sounds audacious, right? Really alarming stuff.

Sadly, it did sound audacious, radical, and reprehensible to the bigoted members of white Mississippi society. These students were taking their lives into their hands by joining this cause, and they knew it. By enlisting whites, who willingly exposed themselves to violence, movement leaders hoped to garner nationwide attention to their cause.

Kill a black, no one notices. Kill a white, the nation will rise up. This was the devastating truth.

Almost immediately three workers were killed in cold blood — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Their murder, the freedom summer missing postercover-up, investigation and trial are the waymarkers in this riveting book. With chapters entailing just one day, even just one afternoon, Rubin powerfully unfolds this tragic episode.

I have a friend, Alice, who was one of those Freedom Summer workers. She is a soft-spoken, gray-haired, woman who has my enduring respect for her quiet, keen love for God and mankind. Reading this book was a confrontational moment for me as I understood more of what she risked entering Mississippi, imagined what her parents felt during that summer, evaluated my own willingness to enter another’s struggle.

This is the longest account among today’s three titles, requiring the most maturity to absorb. I would recommend it for ages 12 and up. It is amply suited for adult readers as well. 100 pages, with historical photos, locations and websites to learn more, a time line, appendices, source notes, and an extensive bibliography including numerous interviews and oral histories. 

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I’ll have more titles here next week, and you can search the Subject Index for past years’ titles — look under History: Black American History/Civil Rights.