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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

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

"I want to go to jail," (third grader) Audrey told her mother.
Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready.

Cynthia Levinson's stunning and moving We've Got a Job chronicles the days leading up to the 1963 Birmingham Children's March. Read on to discover more about this historic event (and how you can win a copy of this book for your very own classroom).

In We've Got a Job, readers learn how young protestors, some just grammar school students, took to the streets in May of 1963 with the intention of filling the jails so that the segregationist policies of the South's most notoriously divided and violent city could no longer be carried out. For years Birmingham had seen vicious attacks on blacks, including countless fires and bombings, so many that the city was bitterly nicknamed "Bombingham" by its black residents. 

Too often, however, those of us who view history as an ordered series of dates in a textbook see the events of Birmingham as a given, as a struggle which was destined to take place. Little do most of us know how close the Birmingham protests came to utterly failing.

While many adults participated in sit-ins, marches, and public prayer meetings, it soon became apparent that retributions by whites, mostly through job loss, threatened to snuff the small flames of freedom before they ever caught. But encouraged by Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and others, children accepted the challenge and risked their own freedom and safety to do what had to be done. Facing the threats of dogs, high pressure fire hoses, and crowd brutality, children took a stand for those freedoms for which they can no longer wait.

Told through the eyes and voices of those who participated, this book brings a sense of intimacy and urgency which is often lacking in textbook accounts. Cynthia Levinson mixes personal narratives, historical background, contemporary anecdotes, and headlines of the time to create a well-rounded, highly readable account of extraordinary heroism by ordinary folk.

The Chain of Hate

Martin Luther King wrote:

"To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify hate in the world... Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."

And perhaps this defined the greatest challenge for the marchers: meeting hatred with love, violence with nonviolence, ignorance with understanding, intolerance with patience. What Levinson helps the reader to see is that the two sides weren't clearly cut; many whites sympathized with and supported the black cause, and many blacks disagreed with the nonviolent measures of the leaders of the protest movement.

One excerpt from Chapter Eight: May 2. D-Day describes the excitement of the children as they're carted off to jail in buses after they've filled all the police paddy wagons:

The kids were exhilarated; the policemen were exhausted. An officer asked a marcher, "When is this going to end?" 

She responded, "Do we have our freedom yet?"

"I wish you could have your freedom just to stop this," he admitted.

Later, at mass meeting in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, King reassured hundreds of worried parents by saying:

"Your daughters and sons are in jail... Don't worry about them. They are suffering for what they believe, and they are suffering to make this nation a better nation."

The book concludes with an Author's Note, a map of the city, and a timeline of the events described in the book. These documents, as well as the book's final chapter, will help teachers answer the many questions that students might have about the Birmingham Children's March, and its outcomes on history.

Extensions and Recommended Resources:
  • One key to strong informational writing is the ability to blend exposition and narrative in a way that provides readers with information, while at the same time encouraging the reader to read on. Cynthia Levinson makes this happen through wonderful transitional phrases, the inclusion of headings, and a well-researched collection of quotes from the very people who lived the events. Many excerpts from this text could provide wonderful models for students to use in their own writing.
  • A study of Martin Luther King, Jr. would benefit greatly from this book, as it helps readers to see him as a very embattled, very conflicted, and very human figure. In the rear view mirror of history, we tend to see only the accomplishments and greatness of our heroes, and rarely their struggles. Students will be interested to learn that King faced disappointment, criticism, and failure; much of his greatness was his refusal to be defined or consumed by those same failings.
  • Peachtree Publishers has created a wonderful companion site featuring a synopsis, resources, and additional information about the players mentioned in the book. Also, be sure to check out the Official Blog Tour for this book. Every blogger has their own take, and lots more resources as well.
  • The Greensboro Sit-Ins are mentioned as an inspiration for the nonviolent restaurant sit-ins which took place in Birmingham. I've collected some wonderful picture book recommendations as well as several resource sites in a post titled Sit Down and Be Counted: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement with Picture Books.
  • If you're looking for a teacher reference, or a book appropriate for readers in grades 6 and up, I can recommend none more highly than A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Well organized by year and event, with plenty of period photographs, this is the book that will help you answer all of your students questions (and your own!) about this tumultuous and important time in our nation's history Author Diane McWhorter provides fact in a beautiful tapestry that reads like a story, full of real-life human beings whose individual stories form the larger transformation that we call The Civil Rights Movement.


Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

I own this wonderful book, so please don't enter me in the draw.

Just wanted to give a special shout out to Cynthia for the 'bajillion' awards that WE'VE GOT A JOB has been racking up lately - all incredibly well-deserved!

- Cathy

Keith Schoch said...

Yes, TONS of awards and acclaims, and all 5 star ratings over at Amazon! Much deserved.

Mia @Online PhD Schools said...

This is a part of history which is new to me. It is because of brave actions that segregation is mostly history. This was a period of great transition which, for many of us, took place before we were born. It is clear that the situation has improved thanks to sacrifices like these.