~GUEST POST by Austin Author CYNTHIA LEVINSON
Exactly 50 years ago this month, in April 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was heating up in Birmingham, Alabama. A minister there, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had been trying for seven years to desegregate the city that his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most racially violent city in America. Every Monday night, he had been holding meetings at his church where black people gave testimony about the injustices they suffered. He’d also been petitioning the city to desegregate the police force. The only result was that the Ku Klux Klan, with the knowledge of the police, bombed his parsonage one Christmas night, blowing him out of his bed. So, he turned to his friend and asked for help.
The reason I know about these events is that I wrote a middle-grade nonfiction book, which BookPeople kindly carries, about civil rights in Birmingham. Called We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012), the book is not just about the role of Dr. King and other eloquent black preachers in the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, it’s mostly about the role of kids in the Movement. Peachtree produced not only a beautifully designed book but also, in time for the 50th anniversary, an alluring website.
As the website shows, the book tells the story through the experiences of four children who protested segregation and even went to jail. King, Shuttlesworth, and other ministers spent the month of April trying to persuade grown-ups to do the job. But, when adults couldn’t do it for fear of losing their jobs, the children stepped up, literally.
Arnetta Streeter, 16, took classes in nonviolence and signed a pledge—The Ten Commandments of Nonviolence.
James Stewart, 15, led the first group of children out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on May 2, 1963. About 800 followed behind him, and about 500 were arrested that day.
Audrey Faye Hendricks was only nine years old—so young that she carried a board game with her in the paddy wagon so she’d have something to play with during her week in the cellblock.
Washington Booker III, 14, was a reluctant demonstrator. He knew first-hand how violent the Birmingham police force could be. But, eventually, he, too, volunteered for jail and for the cause.
Peachtree’s website not only describes their stories, it also provides multiple links to sources for further information, and it lists many of the resources that I used to research and write the book. In addition, I’m proud to say the site also indicates some of the awards that We’ve Got a Job has earned, including the NCTE Orbis Pictus Outstanding Nonfiction for Children (Honor Book) and the YALSA Award or Excellence in Nonfiction (Finalist) as well as the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction (Honor Book).
This year will mark the 50th anniversary of many events in the Civil Rights Movement, including the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The Children’s March spawned repercussions that still reverberate—and should be honored—today.
If you’d like even more information, please visit my website as well. Every day, through May, I am posting events that happened in Birmingham 50 years before. And, you can hear Audrey’s favorite civil rights song, “We’ve Got a Job.”
Last year, BookPeople hosted a launch at the Carver Museum in Austin. Here’s a picture of Washington Booker at the launch with 4th-graders from Round Rock ISD who made a trailer for the book.
Thank you, BookPeople, for giving Austin’s writers a place to share their work and Austin’s readers a place to learn!
Cynthia Levinson interviewed dozens of participants in the Birmingham Children’s March and spent four years researching and writing We’ve Got a Job to share their stories. A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey. She divides her time between Texas and Massachusetts.
Copies of We’ve Got a Job are currently available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.