Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How? And Another Why?

This is an anniversary year for Birmingham Alabama, memorializing the sacrifices and struggles of the civil rights movement fifty years ago. Birmingham's role became a catalyst for change far beyond its own streets. This year city leaders are giving special honor to the heroes, those living and dead, those known and unknown, all whose contributions were significant. The city is also looking fifty years forward.

A struggle must have opposing forces, and young readers, perhaps their parents, too, might wonder how Birmingham came to a brink that caused caring people around the world to gasp in disbelief. Why are events that happened fifty years ago receiving so much attention today?

BLACK AND WHITE: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor, by Larry Dane Brimner, Calkins Creek, 2011

The book jacket promises: “Black and White is the unforgettable story of Fred Shuttlesworth’s courageous stand against Bull Connor.”  That promise is met as the story leads the reader into the center of the battle for justice and equality.
Bull Connor championed the ways of the Old South, especially segregation of the races. He often resorted to violence to enforce his tenets.

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s mission was equal rights.  Although his preaching style was considered “fiery”, he practiced nonviolent direct action. 

Both text and archival photographs highlight the dramatic confrontations between the two men. The  power on both sides is intense.
Reverend Shuttlesworth emerges as the stronger of these two forces, only partly because we know how the story turns out. We have had the benefit of time and the judgment of a nation’s conscience.
More is known about Reverend Shuttlesworth. It is doubtful that much would be known about Bull Connor if he and the preacher had not tangled and wrangled and stood firm against each other. Author Brimner points out the similarities between the two men such as their humble backgrounds but notes that their greatest similarity may be their "doggedness."   

Both men have died, but author Brimner was able to visit with Reverend Shuttlesworth during his last days. For that time together he expresses gratitude to Reverend Shuttlesworth and his widow, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, “for opening their hearts and sharing their time and thoughts with me so that Fred’s story could be told.”

Brimner’s research took him to dusty collections of FBI files, court records, archived newspapers, and other primary court documents as well as modern archives like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Black and White includes a bibliography, index, and an author’s note which lends itself to a “what happened next?” feeling.  Additionally, you can read an insightful interview with the author here explaining how and why he wrote this book.

A word about quality nonfiction books written for children. They will be meticulously researched and skillfully written to engage the most critical audience, your children. 

If you, the parent, read these books together or separately, the benefit is great. You may be inspired to read further and you may find yourself well prepared for a spirited discussion, too.
It takes a writer to document the events and landmark decisions that resulted and weigh which ones will best serve as an historical foundation for the reader. It takes a writer to show how slow the pace to cause some major changes but present them in such a way that the reader does not tune out. It takes a writer to motivate the reader to maintain what is good and continue working to change that which is still not. Larry Dane Brimner is a writer like that.

Why is Birmingham's role in civil rights important today? Great discussions begin with well written, well researched books.


Saturday, September 7, 2013


This month Birmingham, Alabama is much in the news as it remembers four little girls who were killed in the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It happened 50 years ago, but the pain is still sharp and will undoubtedly remain so. It will take many books to explain the civil rights movement, how it began, what propelled it, and where it is today. Here is one of my picks to help your young readers navigate the events.

BIRMINGHAM, 1963, by Carole Boston Weatherford, Wordsong, 2007
For ages 9-12. An award winning poet employs free verse and a fictional child to give voice to her tribute to the four little girls killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan put 19 sticks of dynamite under the back steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL on September 15, 1963.

This fictional character is like every child who is nine and looking forward to her tenth birthday. On her long-awaited day, she enjoys a family breakfast of biscuits and red-eye gravy. Her pigtails are tugged by her rascally little brother. She’s practiced This Little Light of Mine countless times, and she can hardly wait to stand up in church and sing her heart out. The reader follows her to church and gets a glimpse of four other girls, a little older, heading down the hall. Our character wishes she could join them. If only they’d let her. Maybe next week—when she’s ten.  
However, moments later, her tenth birthday is shattered. The lives of the four little girls giggling in the hallway, heading for the girls’ room, are stilled forever.  As the author says, ”Someone…lit the fuse of hate.”  That someone snuffed out the promise of the lives of these four little girls.

Who were these little girls, Addie Mae, Cynthia, Denise, and Carole? The author focuses on each child and what made her special. Who might she have become?  

The author’s note is brief but covers the turbulence surrounding all children growing up on Birmingham’s streets in 1963. Parents unaware or far removed from that era will find this book is a helpful introduction to how real families suffered and survived.

For further background, if you are following the Civil Rights Trail or paying heed to respected travel guide Fodor’s which places Birmingham, Alabama in the top five of its list of cities to visit this fall, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute offers a full calendar  of events and displays. Guides who were foot soldiers offer personal experiences to mesmerized listeners.  The BCRI presents extensive human rights coverage from both a local and a global perspective all year long.
For older readers, including adults, Birmingham Sunday, by acclaimed author Larry Dane Brimner, is reviewed here.  You will want to view his moving trailer and click on the link in the sidebar to hear Joan Baez singing "Birmingham Sunday."

With both of these books in hand, parents will be prepared to help their young readers grasp the significance of this fifty year commemoration.  

To quote Carole Weatherford’s dedication in Birmingham, 1963, “The struggle continues.”


Hillview School Library