Wednesday, May 22, 2013

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Levinson

When the Red River crested in 1997 the water was filling up the streets like a bathtub and moving so fast I couldn't get sandbags piled around our house quick enough. My husband was working and I was chiseling ice off the grass so the water wouldn't seep under the sandbags. I knew it was a losing battle and plugged desperately away lugging 40 pound bags in a semicircle as the water inched closer. When a college student popped around the house saying loudly, "Hey, you need some help?" I thought an angel had dropped from the sky. Then another angel showed up. And another. And another. They didn't stop coming and before I knew it more kids than I could count were whipping up a sandbag wall. Exhaustion and gratitude made me just about sit on a sandbag and cry. The three local colleges released students that day and told them to help residents in one of the worst floods of the century. Students had a choice. They could have enjoyed a free day or they could help others. They chose to give and the students not only saved my house, they saved many other homes and businesses from flooding. It was an amazing experience for adults and students. Kids make a difference and it might mean saving a town from a natural disaster or in the case of the Birmingham Children's March portrayed in this book, forcing desegregation and influencing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed acts of discrimination.

Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most racially divided cities in the country. The government and police force were corrupt with supremacists and many blacks were murdered or abused; fear oozed in the town making everyone victims of oppression. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) wanted to change the subhuman treatment of blacks and integrate public places. They first staged boycotts and later sit-ins, but the police brutality made it difficult for them to get enough numbers to be effective. Their goal was to use nonviolent direct action protests to draw national media attention, shut down the city, and fill up the jails with more people than it could contain. Even with the help of Martin Luther King Jr. the adults could not get enough recruits to implement the plan and their civil rights movement looked like it would stall.

When a 24-year-old preacher joined their cause, he came up with the idea of using children to fill the Birmingham jails since there were not enough adult volunteers. Students went to mass meetings and workshops that simulated not retaliating when someone was jeering or hurting them. The nonfiction narrative is told through the voices of Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta. The four represent different economic statuses that gives a well-rounded retelling of this time period from different perspectives. The wealthy black's experience was not quite the same as the one living in poverty.

The courage it took for thousands of kids to demonstrate against a corrupt government and racist people is nothing short of amazing. The police were brutal. The kids knew this. They knew they were risking their lives and injury by marching on the town in protest of segregation, but they did it anyway. They did it for freedom. For a future. They succeeded but not without deaths and injury. The first march had the police releasing dogs on the kids and hitting them with water from fire hoses. The water pressure was great enough to throw kids and adults in the air tumbling them into buildings and other objects. The next march was met with police resistance where they doubled the fire hose power and the force was so powerful it sheared the hair off the side of one kid's head when it hit her. But the kids succeeded in their goal. They got national attention and the city desegregated. It was ugly and didn't happen overnight, but it eventually came to pass.

The black and white photos mirror the black and white attitudes with the facts on the side enriching the text. The photos added to the setting and showed the violence but not in a disturbingly graphic way. The photo of the black girl holding the sign, "Can a man love God and hate his brother," while a white policeman confiscates it is particularly powerful. My favorite subtext of facts is on the first page that explains derogatory names blacks were called by whites and the history of how black people referred to themselves and why today they settled on African American. My Taiwanese-born library assistants like to call kids, "boy or girl." I had to explain that they can't get students attention by saying, "Hey boy," because of it's derogatory meaning that started with white slave owners putting down blacks to keep them in servitude and bondage.

The start of this story is wrought with tension that doesn't let up through its entire 150 pages. Audrey is 9 years old and announces to her parents, "'I want to go to jail.' ...Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendrick's thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready." What a great lead to pull the reader into the story. Black history tends to be tense with the emotionally charged injustices that happen, but the tension was even more heightened for me because these were children and I'm not sure they all understood what they were actually going up against. James point of view shows just that - he didn't think jail would be as bad and inhumane as it was in reality. The writing is well-done and I particularly liked the author's articulation of civil disobedience and prejudices: "People breathe in the prejudices in their culture without any understanding of what they're taking in," "there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression [Martin Luther King Jr.]" and "Sobered by racism. Angry about violence. Determined to gain civil rights." These child protestors had to face a "mighty enemy" with no fear and their courage is an inspiration for all.
Reading Level 7.1
5 Smileys

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