Be Someone’s Hero: The Children of Birmingham, 1963
Today, it is my honor and pleasure to help launch Cynthia Levinson’s new Book, WE’VE GOT A JOB—THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH. How appropo that this be my first “Be someone’s hero” post–this book is ALL about no capes being required. These heroes are not just ordinary people–but children as well.
If you ask a child to name a hero, most will cite a cape-wearing one with a secret lair. A die-hard sports fan may give the name of a MLB slugger or a quarterback with a cannon for a throwing arm. A music enthusiast may offer up the name of a pop star. It is the rare child that would offer up the name of a real hero.
Thinking about the cartoon champions that children usually associate the word “hero” with, brought me to Spiderman comic’s quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I have always liked this quote for both its simplicity and depth.
So, why do I bring it up here? Because I’m thinking about heroes and how these children of a volatile 1963 Birmingham turned this well-known quote on its head. How they stared down fear—not to say they weren’t awash in it, but they stepped forward regardless. When met with opposition (which you’ll see is an understatement when you read the book) they pushed forward, even with the threat of personal peril. These children knew that the reverse of the above quote is true as well: “With great responsibility, comes great power.”
Cynthia Levinson’s book, WE’VE GOT A JOB—THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH is a stunning work. Her writing is magnificent, yes, but it is the material that floored me. Yes, I knew of some of the events in Birmingham surrounding the “separate but equal laws” but I did not realize how pervasive it really was. I did not know that every message for a black person in Birmingham at this time hammered the idea that they had no value. I mean none.
In fact, black people were not considered human. Details like the white doctors referring to black patients as “Bo” (all men) and “Bessie” (all women)—that learning black patients’ names was considered unnecessary. How Thursday nights at the State Fair were reserved for “niggers and dogs.” How the tower of the Protective Life Building (ironic name) played “Dixie” every day at noon—just in case any black people forgot who was in charge. These are just a few of many, many examples that make you track back to reread to make sure you read it corectly.
Who? Who could possibly step forward to turn such a massive tide? Who could keep hope in the face of such hopelessness?
When Martin Luther King asked for volunteers, the children stepped up. He said no; it was too dangerous. But, they showed up anyway. A dozen, perhaps? A few hundred would be pretty amazing. How about 4,000? That’s right. About four thousand children as young as nine years old. Cynthia focuses on the true stories of four children that were there: Arnetta, Audrey, James, and Wash. Her research was exhaustive, including extensive interviews of these people as adults.
Now, if you’re thinking that the children merely stepped forward to go sit in a jail cell and wait, well it was much more daunting than that. The Birmingham police, led by Bull Connors, were dangerous. I don’t want to give too many details from the book away, but those kids had to be brave and determined to do what they did. And their parents had to be as well to let them go.
Like with Anne Frank’s story, adults are moved by children in peril. And the actions of these brave children—and the actions of the cowardly local police department—could not be ignored nationally. President Kennedy had to act. Something needed to be done. The children succeeded where adults could not.
As Cynthia’s friend and blog mate, I know that she worked tirelessly with Peachtree to collect just the right pictures. In this case, each is worth so much more than a thousand words. All in black and white and simply stunning. Pictures of KKK members, smiling. Standing with their young children, also dressed in kind as if they’re at a picnic in the park, yet draped with these ugly white robes—ugly because we known the insidiousness that they stood for. Yes, I knew of the KKK, but the pictures…Wow. And the hope in the faces of the children marching is so poignant. The cover is worth a good, long look. I’ll never forget those pictures.
It’s a coincidence that I have been preparing to launch this new part of this blog, “Be someone’s hero. No cape required” at the same time that Cynthia’s book is to be set free into the world, but it is not a coincidence that I waited a couple of weeks so that these children could be my first post. I dedicate it to Cynthia for her tireless search for the facts surrounding these little known (and also little) heroes that made such a monumental difference; I wanted this post on Cynthia’s book to be my first entry.
And now it is.
Way back in 2009, I heard an excerpt of Cynthia Levinson’s book, WE’VE GOT A JOB and I knew it was a winner. It had a special quality that non-fiction doesn’t often possess. I guess you could say that it reads like a novel—with mental images and emotions. A lack of merely delivering the facts. The words linger as images in the mind long after reading. I was not surprised when I heard it had gone under contract, and I stood and danced behind my desk at hearing the news. Today, I dance again!
I couldn’t be happier for Cynthia and her future readers. This book will make a difference and I think that’s probably the primary wish of most children’s authors. It will enhance knowledge. It will deepen understanding. It will arouse compassion. And I believe it will teach kids in a very poignant way that they, too, can be heroes.
Bravo, Cynthia. You are…*wait for it*…my hero.
Your story breathes. The reader never forgets that this all really happened. I admit to tracking back to reread portions of the book as the truth washed over me. These children were not like my characters, born of imagination.
These Birmingham children were real. No capes. No secret lairs. No utility belts. Just guts and grit and determination.