Monday, February 25, 2008

Children's Book Review: Birmingham, 1963

stained glass window in 16th street baptist churchPhoto courtesy of the BPL Digital Collections

Carole Boston Weatherford’s Birmingham, 1963 tells the story of the darkest day in Birmingham’s history: the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Because the church was centrally located and had a large basement perfect for meetings, it became a rallying place for the movement and many protests were staged there. This act of terror would become known as the “blast heard around the world,” and was one of several bombings that earned Birmingham the nickname “Bombingham.”

Birmingham, 1963 is told through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl, who along with her family is not just an observer but a participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She is witness to Martin Luther King’s stirring speech at the March on Washington, sits in protest at whites-only lunch counters, and is arrested along with hundreds of other young participants in the Children’s Crusade.

The year I turned ten
I missed school to march with other children
For a seat at whites-only lunch counters.

Like a junior choir, we chanted “We Shall Overcome.”
Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,
And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.

Details of the girl's daily life reveal a subtle transition from child to young adult, and we can't help but think of four other girls who will never get to sing another solo, dance with their fathers, or grow into women.

The day I turned ten
I rehearsed my Youth Day solo in the full-length mirror.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

But Mama allowed my my first sip of coffee
And Daddy twirled me around the kitchen
In my patent-leather cha-cha heels.

And then the family of four pile into the car and listen to gospel radio as they drive to church. At 10:22 a.m. the destruction of the heart of the movement in Birmingham is complete, except for one lone stained glass window depicting Christ with his face blown out:

The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.
The Lord is my shepherd, said the pastor on a megaphone.

The only fatalities that day were four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson—although twenty-one others were injured. Martin Luther King gave the eulogy at a joint funeral for three of the girls, and 8,000 people came to mourn their deaths. The bombing did exactly the opposite of what the terrorists had planned: instead of paralyzing the movement, it lit a fire under its feet and led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.

Birmingham, 1963 is a realistic but gentle introduction for children to the church bombing. The book ends with a poetic tribute to the four youngest victims.

Carole Boston Weatherford will be visiting several BPL locations this week. Don't miss this opportunity to meet her and hear her discuss her new book.

Some of the photographs in Birmingham, 1963 are from the Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections.

Of interest:

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States
The Civil Rights Movement in the South
The Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham

The Civil Rights Movement in Adult Fiction
The Civil Rights Movement in Juvenile Fiction

The Civil Rights Movement on DVD and video

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