Fifty years ago today, four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson—were killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Looking back at that tragedy, you can’t help but note the irony that this terrorist act led to results that were the opposite of what the killers had intended. Instead of obliterating the movement, it ignited it and led to the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.
What a tight-wire challenge such a topic must be for a children’s book writer. Acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, with characteristic sensitivity and awareness of her audience, has written of that tragedy in her beautiful and moving collection Birmingham, 1963. Her free verse features the perspective of a fictional 10-year-old girl, who, along with her family, participated in the Civil Rights movement. The girl shares her observations of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington, her protests at whites-only lunch counters, and her arrest, along with hundreds of other young ones, in the courageous Children’s Crusade.
There are moments of simple joy, as when she’s allowed to drink coffee and when she puts on her shiny new “cha-cha” shoes. But on Sunday morning the church was blown to bits, except for a stained-glass window depicting Christ, his face obliterated. Four children murdered, nearly two dozen injured, a nation outraged at last.
“The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.”
10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.”
This powerful book is enhanced by its simple design, small size, and its numerous, well-chosen black-and-white photographs. If you are looking for singular poetry for upper-elementary or middle-school students in hopes of initiating discussions of this tragedy or of the Civil Rights movement, you will find it here in abundance.
I’m excited to share the news that Carole has graciously offered to do 50 free Skype visits with K-12 classes or with college education classes. I can tell you from firsthand experience that Carole Boston Weatherford is a fantastic author, teacher, and presenter. When she visited my school library six years ago, she was vibrant, superbly prepared, and absolutely engaging with each of her three young audiences. Take her up on her offer while you can!
See also …
my prior post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu