eyes on the prize…books to celebrate MLK Day 2021

What an extraordinary moment MLK Day will be this year.
In 2020, we witnessed massive, passionate, global protests for civil rights,
and heightened awareness of the work yet to do to bring equality and justice to all people.
In just over a week, we will inaugurate our first Black, female vice-president,
and only a few days ago Georgia elected its first Black senator
and its first Jewish senator.
during the horrifying events at the Capitol
we witnessed an almost-entirely White mob being met with a bizarre level of restraint
in striking contrast to the ways in which peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters
and peaceful Native American protesters
have routinely been met with brutal opposition by law enforcement.
Once again, our nation’s conversations
have turned to the vast discrepancies in the ways we treat one another based on race.
Now is a good time to read civil rights history.

I decided to post these titles a week early
in the hopes that you might find something to read either leading up to MLK Day or to honor the day.
Children’s literature is a fabulous resource for us all — it is not just for the very young.
Here are five new titles to check out,
and at the end of the post you can find a list of every MLK biography I’ve previously reviewed
as well as a link to my lengthy Black History book list.
Each of today’s titles is linked to Bookshop.org.

This is Your Time, written by Ruby Bridges
published in 2020 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
64 pages

Ruby Bridges takes up the pen to gift us with this book, both a memoir and a powerful call to action as she passes the baton to the current generation of youthful activists.

It has been 60 years since little 6-year-old Ruby became the first Black child to attend an all-White school in New Orleans, 60 years since crowds of grown-ups lined the sidewalk to scream, threaten, and assault this sweet child simply for her presence in a space they wished to reserve for their White children. Bridges recalls these experiences forthrightly, with a dignified clarity, a level gaze. Her measured words carry tremendous weight.

She then reflects on the thousands of children she has met as she speaks in classrooms across the country, the hope she feels because of these encounters. She references the pain and protests stemming from George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020, calling her readers to continue the hard work of protesting with love and grace in their hearts.

Black-and-white photographs are interspersed with the text which is presented in brief portions. The whole package is a powerful, sober, honest conversation to share with children ages 8 or 9 and up. Highly recommended.

The Teachers March: How Selma’s Teachers Changed History,
text by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace, illustrations by Charly Palmer
published in 2020 by Calkins Creek

Many of us know of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, but fewer know of the years of courageous actions leading up to it. One pivotal moment in the struggle was the collective action taken by Selma’s Black teachers marching to the courthouse to register as voters. This book tells their powerful story.

Led by Reverend F.D. Reese, who believed that he and his fellow teachers had an obligation to lead the community because of their positions, over 100 teachers put their jobs and lives on the line in this historic march. Their courage inspired thousands more Selma residents to face violence from White law enforcement officers later that year and achieve final victory. It’s an immensely inspiring account.

Palmer’s strenuous brush strokes and a color palette shimmering with heat steeps each page in decisive, courageous passion. Included are a lengthy Author’s Note, timeline, and resources for learning more. Excellent choice for ages 7 and up.

Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker,
written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
published in 2020 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

A stalwart force for justice, Ella Baker was an uncommonly powerful female leader during the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. This punchy biography reaches right into our hearts delivering Baker’s exhortations to consider your purpose, listen well, and lift others up, a message as current as ever.

Employing short, forceful phrases and rural Southern patois, Powell envelops us in the same rugged sense of pride and drive Baker absorbed as a child. The vital message she heard ceaselessly in her growing-up years was – lift as you climb. Help others, not just yourself. Ella heeded that ethic as she spent her life fighting for justice, mentoring others, challenging systems, urging others onward with her question: What do you hope to accomplish?

I always admire Gregory Christie’s artwork. Strength, passion, and vibrancy pour from his brushstrokes and line, composition and palette. He brings power to every page of this sterling book, a top choice for ages 6 thru adult. An Author’s Note provides more detail on Baker’s life.

The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy
written by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Laura Freeman
published in 2021 by Quill Tree Books

Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall chose a different path to fight for civil rights, learning to debate at his family’s kitchen table, joining debate teams in high school and college, and pursuing a career in law. Marshall went on to argue and win landmark civil rights cases before the Supreme Court before being appointed to the Court, the first Black Supreme Court justice, in 1967.

This account offers a streamlined view of his massively-influential life, highlighting the racial segregation he experienced and successfully fought. Included is a timeline and annotated list of major court cases he argued and won including Brown vs. Board of Education. Great piece of American history for ages 7 and up.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip M. Hoose
published in 2009 by Farrar Straus Giroux
133 pages.

Winner of the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor and Sibert Honor — why has it taken me so long to read this book?!

Claudette Colvin was a 15-year-old living in Montgomery, Alabama, a smart, studious girl with dreams of going to college and becoming a civil rights lawyer, when one day she asserted her rights not to give up her seat on a city bus, was arrested, and found guilty of violating a segregation ordinance. All this took place nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing and became a Civil Rights icon. Why is the name of this resolute young woman so little known? The “twice” in the title refers to the fact that despite all the ensuing cruelties, Colvin took another important, courageous stance in the fight against racial injustice just a year later leading to game-changing Civil Rights legislation. What was it?

This rich, fascinating account of a heroic teenager conveys pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement, provides insightful context for Rosa Park’s actions, and illuminates the way racist ideology insidiously damages the self-image of Black people.  The story also sheds light on the way we continue to attach purity tests to justice issues, dismissing the deaths of unarmed Black men or assaults on women whom we label as in some way insufficiently pure to deserve justice or mercy.

It’s an excellent, thought-provoking biography for ages 14 through adult.
And here are biographies of MLK I’ve recommended in previous posts:

I Have a Dream
(ages 5 and up: original review here)

I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(ages 7-8 and up: original review here)

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song
(age 6 and up: original review here)

Martin Rising: Requiem for a King
(ages 9-10 and up: original review here)

Martin’s Dream Day
(ages 6 and up: original review here)

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968
(ages 8 and up: original review here)

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired the Nation
(ages 8 and up: original review here)

Of course, Dr. King pops up in many more of the civil rights stories found on my Black History list here.
I’ve just created a new page indexing reads on Race/Racism.

In February I’ll be back with more rich choices
for learning Black history so be sure to come back then.

Next week, in honor of Inauguration Day, I’ll have a list of books
specifically to celebrate our new president and vice-president.
There are some awesome titles on there!

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(header image: So Together, by Kadir Nelson)