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From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Marching for Freedom

by Elizabeth Partridge

Thank you to the members of the Boston Globe–Horn Book committee, Julie Just, Gregory Maguire, and Martha Parravano. I am incredibly, deeply honored, in a year of such outstanding nonfiction, to be given this award.

As everyone here knows, no book springs into being like Dionysus emerging from the thigh of Zeus. I work with the most amazing group at Viking: my editor, Catherine Frank; publisher Regina Hayes; copyeditor Janet Pascal; and designer Jim Hoover. My thanks to all of you, as well as to the dedicated people who worked with the book once it was firmly contained between two covers. And huge thanks to my agent, Ken Wright, truly my wingman.

Several years ago I was browsing around online and bumped into photographs by Matt Herron of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. I wanted them. This is what I call photo lust, and when it strikes me, it strikes hard. I immediately e-mailed Matt to ask if he wanted to do a book with me, after warning him, of course, that children’s books are love projects, not huge income earners. To my delight, he was interested. He turned out to live about half an hour away from me, and he gave me full access to his archive. Which was a dusty room crammed full of old filing cabinets. Not exactly a white-cotton-glove, hushed-voice kind of place, which
was fine by me.

I also found online the work of John Phillips, in Toronto. He’s another of these scratchy, cranky, delightful, dedicated civil rights photographers. He ended up scanning in all his proof sheets for me.

As I looked through all the photos, I realized there were lots of kids and young adults in the protests, which puzzled me at first. Then I read a few archived articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, where the reporters had interviewed and quoted kids by name. Lightning struck. I realized I could probably find a couple of these people and interview them. I love primary source interviews as much as I love photographs.

With the internet, the phone, and a lot of perseverance, I found five or six people who’d been involved in the protests. In November 2008, I flew to Selma.

The people I interviewed — now in their late fifties and early sixties — remembered events with crystal clarity. Their stories were terrifying, and inspiring. They had been too young to vote. But they had the courage to stand up for what they believed in, for what they knew was right, despite being humiliated, beaten, and repeatedly jailed.

Bobby Simmons — the young man on the cover with VOTE written across his forehead — was among the first group of marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. State troopers attacked with tear gas and billy clubs. He told me how he ran forward and dodged through the troopers, and was caught in a cloud of tear gas in front of several small businesses.

“People were laying out, bleeding, coughing, crying,” he said. “We were pure defenseless.” That’s one of the most eloquent, descriptive phrases in the world. “Pure defenseless.”

By chance, my visit to Selma included election night 2008. After dark, I joined a silent memorial candlelight vigil across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There was just the shushing sound of our feet and the murmuring water far below. Hand-held candles bobbed gently in the darkness as we walked over the bridge to the site of Bloody Sunday. Ninety-six-year-old Amelia Boynton, who’d been badly beaten on the march, moved to the center of the crowd. Her voice was soft, and as she spoke we drew in closer and closer to hear her.

It was hushed, reverential. All around me, faces glowed in the candlelight. Suddenly somebody called out, “Obama’s taken Pennsylvania,” and at that point we knew he would win the election. People burst out cheering and yelling and crying.

As I finished my research and worked on rough drafts, Obama became president. I was excited and thought civil rights would be moved further along. What I — like so many others — didn’t anticipate was the counter slam that came in like a tidal wave. By the time Marching for Freedom came out, it was apparent that a frightening backlash had been galvanized by having an African American president. Since Obama’s election, there has been a steady rise in hate crimes, and memberships in hate groups are now at record levels.

While Marching for Freedom is clearly a book about civil rights, it’s fundamentally about democracy, with its cornerstone of the right to vote. And in our robust, paradoxically fragile, perpetually challenged democracy, we need to look out for one another and protect those who are vulnerable.

In the strange ways of the world, I am now Facebook friends with one of the marchers, Lynda Blackmon Lowery. She was the youngest person to march all the way from Selma to Montgomery. “I was not brave,” she told me. “I was not courageous. I was determined. That’s how I got to Montgomery.”

I disagree. She was brave. She was courageous.

After living for years in New York City, Lynda moved back to Selma. She has a deep and powerful spiritual practice. Here’s part of a recent posting of hers: “Romans 13:12 says, ‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.’”

Lynda’s armor of light is faith, love, and prayer. The armor of light is how the young people in Selma in 1965 stood up to brute force and unjust laws and cultural expectations and changed our democracy. The armor of light was all they had.

This is a tough world. How do we keep our hearts from breaking in a way we fear we can never mend? How do we acknowledge the terrifying darkness in the world and yet not give in to despair and grief? How do we honor people who have stood up against tremendous odds, against belief systems, against contradiction and confusion, and have found a way to heal and love despite forces arrayed against them?

How do we put on our armor of light?

I do it by writing books. Books about courageous people. People who dare to believe change is possible and are willing to work hard to make it happen.

And I’m heartened. We have a record-breaking number of kids and young adults across the United States putting their passion and time into a wide range of volunteer activities and community service.

While I write about the past and how it’s made us who we are today, it’s the future we can change, and these young people are doing it. They fill me with hope.

Thank you.

From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

 

 
 
   
 
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