We Shall Overcome – Books About The Civil Rights Movement

Charlottesville haunts my dreams. In a year full of disturbing news, Charlottesville is the one my mind keeps turning to. I have so many questions. So many. Why would so many healthy, well-dressed young white men gather to yell white supremacist slogans in 2017? Why do they feel entitled to banish immigrants when they were born and raised in a land of immigrants? Why this vitriol towards people of color? Most importantly, how do I inoculate my kid from embracing the kind of hate displayed in Charlottesville?

It’s the last question that keeps me up at night. Maybe you’re wondering the same thing. There is no way to shield our kids 100% from the freely exchanged hatred online. The father of one of the white supremacists at Charlottesville discovered this exact thing. He thought he raised his son with solid values, only to discover that he lost out to white supremacist rhetoric on the internet. In a heartbreaking letter, he disavowed his son’s actions and publicly disowned him.

I get depressed—or rather, overwhelmed—whenever I think of the long history of racial injustice in our country, and the prospect of teaching it to my kid. How to accurately convey the pain that racism causes? And here is where books can help. Books always help. Luckily, there are more Middle Grade and YA books written by African American authors now than ever. Here are two standouts I’ve read recently, one for Middle Grade and another for teens and adults.

Midnight Without a Moon

Midnight Without a Moon is a book that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. 13-year old Rose Lee Carter’s story takes place in the Jim Crow South of 1950’s Mississippi, but many of the issues that trouble her life are still relevant today.   

Rose is a hard-working, indomitable spirit, and a top student of her small school. But the time is 1955 in Mississippi, and she finds her options limited. Oppression surrounds her. Away from home, there are the white boys who randomly harass her on rural roads, making her fear for her life. At home, her grandmother Ma Pearl bullies her constantly, forcing her to do virtually all the chores around the house while Rose’s older, mixed-race cousin Queen sits around reading fashion magazines. According to Ma Pearl, “She (Queen) is too light and pretty for chores.” Rose’s baby brother Fred Lee stews in anger from abandonment. Fred Lee and Rose’s mother left them in Ma Pearl and Pa’s care after marrying a wealthy man. She is in Chicago with her new family now. In spite of challenges Rose faces at home, she is determined to escape the south for more education and build a life of her own, just as her aunt Aunt Belle has done in Saint Louis.

Rose’s life is thrown into turmoil when her best friend Hallelujah brings news of 14-year old Emmet Till’s violent death. As the trial to bring the two white men responsible to justice begins, Rose begins to see a generational divide within her family in the fight for civil rights.

There is a lot to process in this book: the Great Migration; the murder of Emmet Till; the beginning of Civil Rights Movement; colorism; religion; inter-generational conflict, and the unfairness of interracial “courtship.”

It’s easy to assume that all African Americans living in Jim Crow South wanted equal rights and desegregation, but in Midnight Without a Moon, we learn that the truth was more complicated. Not everyone was on board with NAACP’s push for civil rights. Ma Pearl’s generation deemed the NAACP too aggressive, preferring the status quo. And who could blame her? As long as they keep out of white people’s way, they were safe—relatively speaking. In fact, Ma Pearl resents people like her daughter Belle, who has moved north, then comes back to “rile people up” in Mississippi. Aunt Belle, on the other hand, criticizes her mother for “slave thinking.” Hope for the future and fear for repercussions go hand in hand.

Rose’s family is a microcosm of 1950’s Mississippi. Like any 13-year old, her world is limited to her family, school, and church. Her world may be small, but we as readers get to experience Rose’s emotional landscape through Rose and her family. While many of the issues are specific to an African American family living through Jim Crow South, some of the family dynamics and intergenerational conflicts are universal, and they provide a window to Rose’s experience. It’s a precarious moment in Roses life and the fate of the nation. By the end of the book, though, I found her resolve hopeful and empowering.

AmazonMidnight Without a Moon

 

March

This one is for teens and adults. March is a unique autobiography by Congressman John Lewis, a legend of the Civil Rights Movement. Co-written with Andrew Aydin, one of his aides who convinced Lewis to tell his life story as a graphic novel, and beautifully illustrated by artist Nate Powell. The third (and last) installment of the book won the National Book Award in 2016.

In March, we learn about John Lewis’s childhood growing up on a farm to the day he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. And let me tell you, reading about all the verbal harassment and physical violence Lewis faced during sit-ins and marches is not easy. It makes my blood boil to read about how Lewis and his colleagues put their lives on the line every time they staged a protest, but it does put Charlottesville into perspective: racial relations have come a long way since the days of segregation. In one incident during a sit-in, a diner employee tried to kill the protesters by locking them in and running a fumigator, as though they were insects. Law enforcement stood by and let the violence happen. They happily participated in the violence, even. Even in the face of death, civil rights activists remained committed to the philosophy of non-violence, which took strength of character and serious resolve.

Whenever I see John Lewis on TV, he exudes grace and quiet strength. I’m so glad he created March to inspire a new generation of civil rights activists. 

Amazon – March

Watch John Lewis and his co-creators accept the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature:

 

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