Carole Boston Weatherford, guest blogger
Were you alive in 1963? At an age where you could understand the horrors of racism? Were you picked on just because of the color of your skin or the shape of your nose or how curly your hair was?
This still happens in 2013, but not to the extent it did in 1963 and before. At least I hope so, though we do have the idiocy of Trayvon Martin’s encounter with deadly force just because he was sauntering down a street in his own neighborhood in a hoodie. Even I, a 72-year-old, faded, red-headed woman, wear hoodies. Do you think I would have been challenged?
Before 1963, African-Americans were tormented, beaten, hanged, barred from restaurants, drinking from the same water fountains or using the same bathrooms as whites, just because of their skin color.
In her powerful book, Birmingham, 1963, Carole Boston Weatherford tells us the story of four young girls who lost their lives because they were at church when cowardly men blew up the building. Below, she answers questions about her journey to writing this book. Sarah
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. One is even titled Remember the Bridge. 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. I also referred to secondary sources. 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. 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.
(Here the narrator tells us of trying to flee the bombed church.)
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.
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 felt that it was important to spotlight their individuality. I did so by revealing their pastimes, personalities and passions. 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.
What do the commonplace items represent on the verso pages?
But Mama allowed me my first sip of coffee
And Daddy twirled me around the kitchen
In my patent leather cha-cha heels.
Another passage mentions “coins for the offering plate.” These details led the amazing designer Helen Robinson to ask for a list of everyday items that the anonymous narrator might own. I thought back to my childhood in the Sixties. Armed by my list, Robinson had the text on verso pages overprint such props as barrettes, bracelets, Barbie doll clothes, birthday candles, 45 records, jacks, an eraser, embroidered white gloves, lace-trimmed socks, pencils, and a puffed heart locket. The commonplace items symbolize youthful innocence and serve as historical touchstones.
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.
Didn’t the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the girls’ funeral?
Yes, Dr. King delivered the eulogy. He called the girls “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Read the entire eulogy here.
Thanks, Carole, and thanks for including the links listed below for those who wish to learn more about your book and the history of the Civil Rights era.
How are you marking the 50th anniversary of the church bombing?
This fall, I am offering free Skype visits to schools that read Birmingham, 1963.
Links to Classroom Resources
Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine)–Mighty Times: The Children’s March and America’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice
Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections — Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — http://bcri.org/index.html
The King Center — http://www.thekingcenter.org/
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