Books take unflinching look at the people and emotions of civil rights movement


January 14, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

As we near the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth tomorrow, we can celebrate that most children now study the civil rights movement in school. But statistics show that more and more kids are learning about Brown vs. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine in public schools that are all-black or all-white.

Segregation isn't a history lesson -- it's a current event. Separate but equal? Per-pupil spending figures for Baltimore vs. the surrounding counties prove otherwise.

So what do we teach our kids? What do we teach the 9-year-old boys who earn more in a week as drug couriers than their teen-age sisters earn in a month at McDonald's? That the civil rights movement wasn't just about dates and names to be memorized. That it was about kids just like them, kids who felt helpless and hopeless and scared, kids who stood up for themselves and found out they could make a difference.

* "Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights," by Belinda Rochelle (Lodestar, $15.99, 112 pages, ages 8-12) tells the story of school desegregation, the Montgomery bus boycott and lunch counter sit-ins with profiles of kids who played integral roles.

The cover photo shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine black students allowed to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. She is being followed by an angry mob, and her mouth is set in a straight line: She is determined not to reveal her terror. More telling are the expressions of white female classmates -- yelling, taunting, they are ugly with hate.

In the chapter on the Little Rock Nine, the author includes Ms. Eckford's recollections:

Most of the white students didn't bother us; they just pretended we didn't exist. But there was this small group of white students that bothered us every day. They would call us names, trip us in the hallways, and push us down the steps, without fear of being reprimanded by the teachers or the principal.

We couldn't fight back. . . . It was up to us to make integration a success, and if you think about it that way, then you realize that when you believe in something, even if you're afraid, you'll find a way to accomplish your goals.

Ms. Rochelle writes that nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a 15-year-old student named Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus and arrested for doing the same thing. Ms. Parks helped raise money to get Ms. Colvin out of jail.

In her chapter on the March on Washington in 1963 and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the author recalls the event through the eyes of Raymond Greene, a Washington native who was 8 at the time:

I don't remember any of the speeches. I don't remember hearing King's speech -- my mother read it to me later. I do remember people's reactions. I especially remember the clapping; it sounded like thunder. The amazing thing is the people who weren't on the podium, who really didn't get to say a word, made the march a part of history. Just by being there each and every one was saying yes to jobs and yes to freedom.

Ms. Rochelle covers a lot of ground, from 1950 through Dr. King's death in 1968. She gives events a sense of immediacy by using the profiles of young people. That means details and historical perspective are sometimes sacrificed, but that's OK. If this book succeeds in inspiring kids to believe they can be empowered, there are plenty of other books they can turn to for further reading. Ms. Rochelle lists several.

* One book that doesn't flinch from showing the clashes in ideology and methodology among civil rights leaders is "The March on Washington" by James Haskins, introduction by James Farmer (HarperCollins, $15, 144 pages, ages 10 and up).

Mr. Haskins shows the exhaustive work that went into organizing the March for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. Bayard Rustin, one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), didn't just coordinate the march. He got the leaders of CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to put aside their differences and unite in the effort.

The book points out that President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, originally had asked that the march be canceled. They worried that critics would say the march was part of a communist plot (Robert Kennedy earlier had authorized the FBI to wiretap Dr. King's phone on the premise that he supported communist causes).

Mr. Haskins' other books include "Rosa Parks: My Story." His research and reporting in "The March on Washington" are impressive, and he includes a fine bibliography.


Signing sightings: Ruth Wells, author of "A to Zen," will give a talk and autograph books at Stepping Stones bookstore in Bel Air, Jan. 22 at 1:30 p.m. On Feb. 12, Laura Krauss Melmed ("Rainbabies," "I Love You As Much," and "First Song Ever Sung") will be at Stepping Stones from 1-3 p.m.

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