Cynthia Levinson's We've Got a Job:
The 1963 Birmingham Children's March
Book review by Anita Lock
"I want to go to jail!"
Those were the words that nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks told her mother the morning of May 2, 1963.
She wanted to be a part of the three to four thousand black children who were going to march, protest, sing, and pray their way to jail in Birmingham, Alabama with one goal in mind: "to end segregation in the most racially divided and violent city in America."
Evoking this inspiring yet terrifying time in America's tainted history, multi-awarded author Cynthia Levinson retells this story through the eyes of four participants:
Although Audrey, Washington, James, and Arnetta had varied experiences
growing up, they were caught in environs which were not only purposefully
black and clearly inferior in every way to the white world surrounding
them, but they also came to the same conclusion: that they would not
allow this oppression to imprison them.
For those of us who have never experienced racial subjugation first hand, it is difficult to imagine that so much hatred could have been concentrated in one city.
Sadly, living in fear that your house may be the next to be bombed, walking long distances to attend overcrowded and ill-equipped schools, and having to ride the back of buses – to name a few examples – were considered "normal" in the lives of black children in Birmingham.
"Segregation in Birmingham wasn't just a way of life. It was the law."
However, chaos ensued when white civil rights leaders worked to replace local government officials with those who would be "more responsive to Birmingham as a whole" at a time when the present officials' terms were not yet completed.
The end result was nothing less than chaotic, since there was a thirty-seven-day overlap when both the old and new governments were in control.
This was not only another sign to the Civil Rights Movement that it was time to end segregation, but also a time to raise the level of protests by introducing Project C ("C" for "Confrontation) – the lunch counter sit-ins.
Although there was a good handful of college students who protested and went to jail, the project overall failed because the black adult community did not have a unified front.
Little did the black community know that though many adults were not willing to risk going to jail, the children were more than willing to jump into the action.
Thus, the Birmingham Children's March was born.
Again, we can only imagine how parents felt when their children were willing to lay down their lives for freedom.
The plan was for the young protesters to meet at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and file out fifty at a time and walk four blocks over to city hall.
Within two days, on May 2nd and 3rd, over two thousand children were arrested, and a good handful experienced the stinging spray of fire hoses while vicious police dogs attacked others.
But now that the jailhouses were filled way over capacity, another youth program was launched on May 8th called Operation Confusion...
"...by approaching lunch counters, threatening to sit-in, and then leaving, while others touched the stores' merchandise (an absolute no-no for blacks in a white store!), outraging white sales clerks."
Of course, if you are familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, with each protest came a response from the KKK. Four months after the Birmingham Children's March, a bomb exploded in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, leaving four girls dead.
Though the tragedy propelled President Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to push relentlessly for the Civil Rights Bill, which became law the following summer, the fight for civil rights was not over.
There would be "more legislation, court decisions, marches, sit-ins, pickets, and pray-ins" required "to secure equal opportunity for all of America's citizens."
Levinson closes this remarkable award-winning book with Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta's accomplishments years later.
The book is replete with a plethora of well-known and new primary sources, a timeline, and a map of the downtown district of Birmingham that details the participants' specific routes and arrests.
Earmarked for middle- to high school-aged readers, I also cannot encourage strongly enough those adult readers who are not acquainted with The 1963 Birmingham Children's March to pick up a copy today. Definitely, a must-read for all ages!
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