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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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This award-winning photo-essay about the civil rights movement highlights the critical role young people played in a changing society.
Before I read Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary, by Elizabeth Partridge, I had no idea that children and teenagers were part of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. I had no idea these American youth participated in meetings with Dr. King’s Freedom Fighters, singing freedom songs and preparing to protest. I had no idea these young people were verbally abused, physically beaten, and even arrested for wanting adults to have the right to vote.
From the first line of the book, Partridge pulls the reader in with riveting details about their experiences: “The first time Joanne Blackmon was arrested, she was just ten years old.” Opposite this page are several black-and-white photos of a child, Samuel Newall; he is first portrayed holding a poster that reads “One Man, One Vote, Register Now, Freedom,” then watching deputies walking toward him, and then being arrested. Partridge’s narrative of the young people’s harrowing experiences is at once gripping and triumphant, disturbing and inspiring. This National Book Award Finalist is written as a narrative, with large, beautifully reproduced photos that support the important ideas, and is easily accessible to the middle- and high-school student and worthy of reading and discussing with peers.
About the Book
Partridge introduces several children and adolescents who were involved in the movement beginning in 1963 and uses their experiences as a lens for describing in detail the events that occurred between January and August of 1965. In Dallas County, Alabama, African Americans found it difficult to vote due to unfair practices like poll taxes and literacy tests. Other discrimination was more blatant, as when Joanne Blackmon accompanied her grandmother to register to vote and the registrar, upon sighting them, put out the Closed for Lunch sign and locked the door.
In frustration, Amelia Boynton, the leader of the Dallas County Voters League, contacted Martin Luther King Jr., who realized this was an opportunity to show the nation the issues African Americans faced in getting the vote. Joanne and her 14-year-old sister, Lynda, were at Brown Chapel in Selma on January 2, 1965, when Dr. King gave a rousing speech. He warned citizens they might suffer intimidation and violence and promised that he and his aides, the Freedom Fighters, would teach the protesters the principles of nonviolence.
African American adults in the community feared retribution for being involved in the movement—they might lose their jobs or even their lives. As a result, the children and adolescents began to play a key role. Eight-year-old Sheyann Webb skipped school to observe the meetings between Dr. King’s aides and the protestors; she shared the details with her teachers, who wanted to be involved but feared the consequences. Charles Mauldin, a high-school student, attended the meetings and began recruiting other teenagers. Young Rachel West’s home was filled with Freedom Fighters, and she began to realize that this movement was bigger than what was happening in Selma—this was not just an African American movement, this was a “people’s movement.”
Partridge’s narrative moves through a series of events, including marches to the courthouse in Selma and numerous arrests; the details she includes evoke compelling, vivid images in the reader’s mind, as in the following excerpt: The metal door clanged shut behind the marchers. It was frightening to be jailed, to hear the scrape of the key in the lock. But they were together. Humming, swaying, shoulders touching shoulders, they found their way into one freedom song, then another.
Then Bloody Sunday occurred. On March 7, 1965, the sheriff’s deputies rode their horses into a mass of marchers—children, adolescents, and adults—beating them with clubs and spraying tear gas at them. The television coverage of this tragic moment reached 48 million viewers. The protestors, more than 100 of whom went to the hospital with injuries, felt like the “hope was beaten out of them.” But when they met at Brown Chapel later that night, someone began to sing, and the spirituals and freedom songs allowed them to find “their way back to strength.” Dr. King sent telegrams to 200 religious leaders, and hundreds of people arrived in Selma to help—Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Jewish, white, and African American. The group planned to march from Selma to the capitol building in Montgomery.
While thousands of people marched at some point during the five-day, 50-plus-mile journey, only 308 walked the entire way, and most of them were under 20 years old, including Lynda and Charles. Partridge details each day of the march, including both the uncertain and the exhilarating moments, the wet and muddy days, and the hours of singing and chanting. The marchers finished their journey on March 25 in front of the capitol with 30,000 other people who arrived from all over the nation. Partridge closes with a brief description of President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act into law in August 1965 and a note that the first African American to register under this new law was Charles Mauldin’s mother.
In the Classroom
The keys to developing a deeper understanding of Marching for Freedom are building students’ background knowledge and providing opportunities for students to engage in thoughtful discussion. Below are suggestions for instruction related to both of these endeavors. Note that the central theme is nurturing students’ understanding of the concept of civil rights—both in the past and the present. Closing each lesson by asking the questions “What are you thinking now about the meaning of civil rights?” and “What does it take to achieve civil rights?” is a good way to sustain a clear focus of the purpose of instruction over multiple days.
Before Reading the Book
Introduce the term “civil rights” and define it clearly for students. Initiate discussion about what they consider to be civil rights and make a list on a large piece of chart paper. Include discussions about barriers related to achieving civil rights and the characteristics of people who fight for and pursue civil rights. Add notes to this chart as the lessons proceed and themes like courage, tenacity, and patience evolve.
Explain how a citizen registers to vote. Guide students through a visit to the website of the United States Election Assistance Commission. Hand out and discuss voter registration forms that include information about who is eligible to vote (available on this website).
Discuss current local, state, and national issues that require citizens to vote and pose questions for discussion, such as “Why is this issue important to vote on?”
While Reading the Book
The Library of Congress features many excellent primary sources tying into Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery. “Marching for Freedom: Linking Literature to Primary Sources” is a Booklist Online article that goes into detail about these resources.
Visit Elizabeth Partridge’s website for links to additional resources, including a Marching for Freedom Google Lit Trip created by the author.
PBS’s American Experience: Eyes on the Prize features an audio clip of the Freedom Singers performing “Governor Wallace” as well as a copy of President Johnson’s March 15, 1965, “We Shall Overcome” address to Congress, a week after Bloody Sunday.
After Reading the Book
Discuss current events related to civil rights issues. Pose such questions as “What did we learn about the civil rights issues in Marching for Freedom that are relevant to these issues?” and even “What should we or can we do?”
Pose open-ended questions for students to consider while reading and discuss after reading, including:
Think aloud about your own responses to the narrative and photos. For example, on p.3, there is a picture of an African American man registering to vote and a “notice” posted behind him listing all the steps necessary to be approved to vote. The implications of the “notice” are worthy of discussion and will deepen students’ thinking about the barriers Africans Americans faced in getting the vote.
Act as a coach, moving from group to group and using prompts to nurture students’ elaboration of their thinking during discussions, such as “Why do you think so? Tell me more.”
Ask groups to reflect on the conversations they are having by posing questions like “What did you learn from each other today?” or “How did you help each other think more deeply about what we read?” Be prepared to share your own observations of their conversations and what you noticed as well.
Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary. By Elizabeth Partridge. 2009. 80p. illus. Viking, $19.99 (9780670011896). 323.1196. Gr. 5–up.
Sunday Cummins is an assistant professor in the Reading and Language Department at National-Louis University.
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