We’ve Got A Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Y. Levinson is a remarkable story interweaving four children protesters out of 4000 and how their actions impacted the Civil Rights movement. This is the story I have been missing all my life as it takes an importance series of children’s protests to explain the events of the Civil Rights movement and how individuals affected the greater movement. Here is the story that shows the confusion, the determination, and the ups and downs of civil protests. It is amazing and I urge you to rush to purchase this from Peachtree Publishers in February, 2012.
We’ve Got A Job provides the background I’ve needed to understand the greater picture of how small protests built and how changes occurred. No individual is glorified or “heroized”. Human actions are realistically described and the imperfections of the leaders are honestly shown. Levinson reveals the problems behind coordinating many small actions for the larger movement. She also uses simple comparisons between white students and black students’ views and actions during the events to provide a multi-faceted setting.
I carried this uncorrected proof with me for over 2 weeks while I read and re-read portions. I utilized the timeline in the back to build a sense of how these actions fit within the larger Civil Rights movement. Author Cynthia Levinson echoes my feelings in her author’s note when she writes:
“Although I read newspaper articles about the marches, hoses, and dogs, it wasn’t until I was an adult, writing about music in the civil rights period for Cobblestone magazine, that I learned the heart of the story: all of the protesters assaulted and jailed that May were children…. [others] needed to know how a Children’s March changed American history.”
Quotations that may be familiar to students are connected to the atmosphere and actions of Birmingham. On page 97 we read:
On D-Day, police officer Captain George Wall said to Captain Evans, “Ten or fifteen years from now, we will look back on this and we will say, ‘How stupid can you be?'” But everyone had to obey the Segregation Ordinances, even those who despised them. “The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham, “King observed, “was not the brutality of the bad people but the silence of the good people.”
While adults in May 1963 hesitated to protest the racist culture of Birmingham, Alabama, with their lives and jobs at stake, their children and teens left school to march and force the police to arrest them. By filling the jails with children and responding in a peaceful manner to attacks by dogs and fire hoses, these students brought national attention to Birmingham. Adult protests had stalled. If the children had not acted, would changes have occurred? Their actions are a vital part of the civil rights movement and need to be shared.
Many people accuse librarians of being too liberal and focused on social activitist clauses, yet I was shocked to read about the public library bathrooms being locked rather than desegregated. Aren’t librarians at the forefront of the protection of civil liberties? Levinson writes:
“Public libraries had been informally desegregated by demonstrators and were soon officially integrated. Their bathrooms, however, were not and remained locked; all patrons–black and white–had to seek facilities elsewhere.”
The importance of protest songs is interwoven with actions. I’ve sung the song “We Shall Overcome” at sunrise ceremonies and learned in my 20’s that this was considered the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Still, it did not connect me to actions and history. It was simply a moving song. I’d read the Wikipedia description of the songs history, but it was putting together the pieces of children’s actions and their music that made this real.
We’ve Got a Job moves to the top of my nonfiction list purchases for any middle or high school collection. While this won’t be published until February, it needs to be pre-ordered to be sure it is received this school year and shared with students. This title once read-aloud to students may be the most important historical account of the Civil Rights movement they’ll read in school since it connects students with real people their age who took steps to bring about change. This is a vital piece of the Civil Rights movement and needs to be understood within the larger context to see how long it takes for change to occur.
President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 two years before I was born. Growing up in Iowa, I knew of the Civil Rights movement as a historical event, assumed it solved all problems and that everything was instantly desegregated. (Okay, I realize that was a foolish notion but I was naive.)
When I moved to Tennessee in 1996, I was surprised to talk to teachers who had experienced segregated schools as students and as teachers. What seemed ancient history to me became a real and continuing battle as I opened my eyes to current problems. I tried to put bits and pieces together including this staff report from the US Commission on Civil Rights on School Desegregation in Nashville-Davidson County. I’ve visited the Nashville Public Library and sat on the chairs memorializing the sit-ins.
I’ve seen the documentary on the Clinton 12 and how students made a difference. “On the first day of school in August 1956, the black students walked into Clinton High School. They were the first African Americans in the South to attend a previously all-white public school.” See Tennessee 4 Me. A year before the Little Rock Nine, twelve youth walked into Clinton High School and into history. Their story can be found at http://www.greenmcadoo.org/story.html
My current school has the distinction of having been bombed during desegregation. You can read more on the website Tennessee 4 Me. There is a fascinating account of A Child Shall Lead Them: Two Days in September 1957: The Desegregation of Nashville Public Schools.
All of these stories about children and their actions are important pieces of history. I appreciate Cynthia Levinson’s bringing the story of these Birmingham, Alabama children and their actions to We’ve Got A Job.