I'm taking a break from my blog series on the writing class I took this fall to highlight (and give away!) two books for children. I thought they'd make great holiday gifts for some fortunate student, child, grandchild, niece or nephew.
This week I'm hosting Carole Weatherford as she shares wonderful insights into her new book, Birmingham, 1963.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I don’t want young people to forget the sacrifices made in America’s freedom struggle. I’ve written a few books with that mission. In Birmingham, 1963, I offer an elegy to the four girls who were killed in the church bombing: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
Discuss your research/creative process.
After writing Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins, I wanted to tackle another watershed event in the Civil Rights Movement. I chose the church bombing because, at the time, there was not children’s book devoted to the subject. The death of the four girls turned the tide of public opinion against white supremacists and the systemic racism that they avowed.
I began research using primary sources in the Birmingham Public Library collection. I read newspaper accounts of the event, viewed news photos, and read responses by President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. An article that interviewed the girls’ families helped me to humanize and personalize the victims.
From the start, I used poetry to tell the story. My early drafts in third person, however, lacked immediacy. So I decided on historical fiction and created a fictional first-person narrator with whom the readers could identify. To layer the plot a bit, I set the action on the anonymous narrator’s tenth birthday. For rhythm and resonance, I employed repetition: “The year I turned ten…”; and “The day I turned ten….” What would have been a childhood milestone, she remembers instead for violence.
Why did you use poetry to tell the story?
Most of my books are poetry or are a hybrid genre blending poetry, biography, fiction or nonfiction. Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.
Why did you choose historical fiction and create an anonymous narrator?
I did not want names of fictional characters to stick in readers’ minds or to take the focus off the real victims. Also, the narrator’s anonymity draws readers even closer to the action. In this scene, she struggles to get out of the church after the blast.
Smoke clogged my throat, stung my eyes.
As I crawled past crumbled plaster, broken glass,
Shredded Bibles and wrecked chairs—
Yelling Mama! Daddy!—scared church folk
Ran every which way to get out.
Why did you set the tragedy on the narrator’s birthday?
In the eyes of children, turning ten is a big deal, a childhood milestone bordering on a rite of passage. The bombing actually occurred on the church’s Youth Day. To compound the irony and up the emotional ante, I made the bombing coincide with the narrator’s tenth birthday. The main character is looking forward to singing a solo during worship service and to celebrating her birthday. Instead, she survives a church bombing and mourns four older girls. That setting dramatically juxtaposes birthday candles and the bundle of dynamite which sparked the explosion. The milestone resonates like a mantra, beginning as The year I turned ten and building to The day I turned ten.
Discuss the book’s “In Memoriam” section.
The book has two sections: a longer opening poem with a first person narrator is followed by four short “In Memoriam” poems—one about each of the four girls. The tributes read like incantations. I could not have written this book without honoring Cynthia, Denise, Carole and Addie Mae. I tried to show not only who they were but who they might have become. In May 2013, the four girls were posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
Several of your books pair poetry with historic images. Why?
So many children ask me whether racial injustices really happened. Children just can’t believe that grownups allowed such wrongs. Documentary photographs confirm for young readers that this history is indeed true. Years ago, I dabbled in darkroom photography. I still love black-and-white photos and find picture research engrossing. Birmingham, 1963; A Negro League Scrapbook; Sink or Swim: African-American Lifesavers and Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People are all illustrated with vintage prints and photographs. Just as childhood innocence confronted racial hatred that Birmingham Sunday, stark news photos contrast with snapshots of girly toys and trinkets in Birmingham, 1963. Powerful pictures speak to me. I hope that the images will affect young readers as well.
What is the purpose of the red marks as a design element?
The red marks are the conception of designer Helen Robinson. On their meaning, she is mum, but she allowed me this interpretation. The random red marks evoke broken glass, the shattering of innocence, and the shedding of blood. What do you think?
Do you have a favorite passage from the poem?
The last stanza is my favorite.
The day I turned ten,
There was no birthday cake with candles;
Just cinders, ash, and a wish I were still nine.
What kind of response has the book received?
So many teachers have told me that they were deeply moved by the book. Some even cried after reading it. The book has won several awards:
Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award
The Jefferson Cup Award
Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Books for Older Readers Honor Book
Kirkus Reviews' Editor's Choice list
Best Children’s Books of the Year, Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry Honor Book
Best Children's Books of 2008 — Christian Science Monitor
What was Birmingham like in 1963?
In the 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. While civil rights protesters pressed for equality and integration, the staunchest racists resorted to violence to resist change. Racists had set off so many bombs in Birmingham’s black neighborhoods that the city was nicknamed “Bombingham.”
Led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the hub of the city’s Civil Rights Movement, known as the Birmingham Campaign. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed after marching from the church on April 12, 1963. And the historic Children’s March took place on May 2, 1963 in downtown Birmingham.
What effect did the bombing have on the nation?
The bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the Newtown, Connecticut of its day. Both tragedies seared the collective conscience. Just as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School rocked our nation and roused support for gun control, the 1963 hate crime both shocked and shamed America into confronting historic racial inequities. During the Cold War, America offered itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. Yet, segregation was the status quo and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African-American citizens. These moral contradictions were exposed by the church bombing that left four girls dead.
Wasn’t 1963 a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement?
In April 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The next month, Birmingham was the scene of the Children’s March that police met with brutality. September 1963 saw the horrific church bombing. And on August 24, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew a record crowd to the Washington, D.C. Television brought these events into Americans’ living rooms. There was a public outcry for change.
Is the bombing still relevant today?
Nowadays, racism is usually more subtle and less definitive. Even hate crimes are more difficult to pinpoint and to prove. In 1998, James Byrd, an African-American man, was dragged three miles to his death by three white men (two white supremacists) in a pickup truck. And in 2006, nooses were hung in a tree on a high school campus in Jena, Mississippi, after a black student tried to sit with white students at lunch. As long as racism persists and this nation exists, stories from the African-American freedom struggle will remain relevant.
Do you recall the bombing?
My earliest recollections of televised news—besides the space race—were in 1963. I can remember watching the March on Washington and hearing the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I also recall President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.
But I do not recall the church bombing. I was just seven years old at the time. If I had known about the tragedy, it would have frightened me. I suspect now that my parents kept the news from me. That was how black parents shielded their children from the sting of segregation. So, I tried now to imagine how I would have mourned then. The child in me connected with anonymous narrator.
Did you see yourself in the four girls? How much of you is in the anonymous narrator?
In 1963 I was seven years old and had already written my first poem. I grew up in Baltimore and did not experience the degree of discrimination that they did in Birmingham. But In many ways, I was those girls.
Like Addie Mae Collins, I drew portraits, played hopscotch and wore my hair press and curled.
Like Cynthia Wesley, I was a mere wisp of a girl who sometimes wore dresses that my mother sewed. I sang soul music and sipped sodas with friends.
Like Denise McNair, I liked dolls, made mud pies and had a childhood crush. I was a Brownie, had tea parties and hosted a neighborhood carnival for muscular dystrophy. People probably thought I’d be a real go-getter.
Like Carole Robertson, I loved books, earned straight A’s and took music and dance lessons. I joined the Girl Scouts and was a member of Jack and Jill of America. I too hoped to make my mark. We are both Caroles with an “e.”
Did you learn anything about that tragic day that gets forgotten?
Yes. Two African-American boys died in the violent aftermath of the church bombing. Sixteen-year-old James Robinson was short in the back by police after a rock-throwing incident with a gang of white teens. Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was shot by a white boy riding a moped draped with a Confederate flag.
You wrote Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. Both invoke God. Of course, Birmingham, 1963 is set in a church. Is this book religious?
The tragedy occurred at a church, so prayer, psalms and religious songs go with the territory. That said, the freedom struggle is a battle of good versus evil. My grandfather was an activist preacher and I wonder if I’m channeling him when my writing wades into spiritual waters. Though not overtly religious like Moses and The Beatitudes, Birmingham, 1963 would nevertheless be at home in a Sunday School lesson.
What happened to the Klan members who bombed the church?
In 1965, the FBI named four suspects in the bombing, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked the evidence and no one was charged with the crime. Finally, in 1977, Robert Edward Chambliss was found guilty of the bombing. In 1988, while dying of cancer, Fary Tucker Admitted his part in the crime. The convictions of Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry followed in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The case was closed 39 years after the bombing.
Links to Classroom Resources
Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine)-- Mighty Times: The Children’s March andAmerica’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice
Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections -- Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) – For Teachers
Eyes on the Prize (PBS) – For Teachers http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/tguide/index.html
Teachers Guide Primary Source Set – Jim Crow in America
Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (NPR) -- http://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/99315652/songs-of-the-civil-rights-movement
Photographs of Signs Enforcing Discrimination (Library of Congress) --http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html
Carole's publisher, Boyds Mills Press, is generously giving away a copy of this book to one of you! Please leave me a comment by December 13. If you share this on your favorite social media, I'll enter your name twice!