Author Cynthia Levinson on "The 1963 Birmingham Children's March"
Interview Series, the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress
Cynthia Y. Levinson is the author of several articles and short fiction pieces for young readers. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is her first nonfiction book for young readers and has received many awards including the IRA Young Adult Nonfiction Award, a Parents' Choice Gold Medal, and was selected as an American Library Association Notable Book. It was also included in the children's bibliography for the “A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington” exhibit of the Library of Congress (8/28/13-3/1/14). Levinson graduated with her B.A. from Wellesley College and her M.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her nonfiction works for young people have been published in several children’s magazines, including “AppleSeeds,” “Calliope,” and “Cobblestone.” Although she specializes in nonfiction, her short fiction has also been accepted by acclaimed children’s magazines and readers. In 2002 Levinson’s picture book manuscript, “Mr. Bellow Lost His Cello,” won Byline Magazine’s national picture book competition. New books to be published in 2015 include The Youngest Marcher (Atheneum) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree Publishers), and in 2016 Fault Lines in the Constitution (Peachtree Publishers), with her husband, professor/attorney Sanford Levinson.
Author Cynthia Levinson explores her motivation to write a children's book about the Birmingham Children's March and how the process affected her as a writer and as a citizen. This interview was conducted over e-mail by Courtney Deal.
How did you react to hearing about the Birmingham protests in the news in 1963? And how did your perspective change once you learned, in doing research for We’ve Got a Job: the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, that it included children?
I wish I could say that I was appalled or, at least, disturbed by the news of the Birmingham protests in 1963. As a white high school senior in Columbus, Ohio, however, I was studying for final exams and getting excited about college. The events did not seem nearly so salient for me as they were for young black people in Birmingham. (I was wrong but I didn’t know that yet.)
Nevertheless, I read the local newspapers, which were dreadful, and even lobbied my father, unsuccessfully, to subscribe to The New York Times on a daily basis, rather than just on Sundays. In addition, I often watched the nightly news programs on one of the three television networks—usually, Walter Cronkite on CBS. In addition, my family prided itself on serious talk around the dinner table.
As I researched and wrote We’ve Got a Job, I looked back at those news articles and shows to refresh my memory. After all, I was asking other people the very question you’ve asked me. It seemed only fair for me to have to answer it, too.
Although I don’t recall specific moments of shock or outrage at the revelations, I have no doubt that I was, at a minimum, curious. Curiosity has propelled much of what I’ve done in my life, from choosing careers to raising children to acquiring hobbies. So, I feel confident that we discussed the events, probably all too dispassionately. To my chagrin, I also feel confident that we concluded, like all too many people at the time, that Reverend Shuttlesworth, who is now one of my heroes, was a firebrand and that, if he’d just wait a little longer, all of his problems would be resolved. For the benighted Midwesterner that I was, curiosity was a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the events in Birmingham.
It was while doing research for a children’s magazine article on music in the civil rights period that I learned about the critical involvement of children. That’s when I became appalled—not only by the events but also by my own ignorance. Furthermore, in asking my friends what they knew about the Children’s March, I discovered that my ignorance was not unique. That’s when I decided I had to write a book.
What about the stories of Wash, Audrey, Arnetta, and James did you find compelling? And what do you think children of today can learn from them?
There is nothing about Audrey’s, Wash’s, Arnetta’s, and James’ stories that I did not find compelling! Particularly riveting were:
- Audrey’s age. She believed that, at age nine, she was the youngest child to march. (In fact, I’ve written a picture book for six- to ten-year-olds, called The Youngest Marcher, which Atheneum is scheduled to publish in 2015.)
- Wash’s high jinks. Wash’s rejection of nonviolent protest and, even, his adoption of violent protest, added a perspective to the narrative of direct confrontation that was important for me—and for kids—to understand.
- Arnetta’s early devotion to the cause. She started protesting sooner than the others and, though she was a “good girl,” she disobeyed her parents to do so. She was really a true believer from the start.
- James’ deliberations. James considered various ways to protest. Should he sit in, like Arnetta, for instance? He was very thoughtful about his approach, which made his incarceration that much more brutal.
The lessons that I take from their experiences are:
- Children can be much more efficacious than they are aware.
- When children behave badly, we need to understand why.
- Children can care passionately.
- Children can be much more thoughtful about their motives than we give them credit for.
How do you think the deaths of Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Virgil Ware, and Johnnie Robinson punctuated the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and in the country, especially after the Children's Marches? What changed about the movement after they died?
Your use of the word “punctuated” is very apt. And your including Virgil Ware and Johnnie Robinson in your question is very thoughtful. They have been too long ignored.
For the participants in the Children’s March, the successes of their actions were exhilarating. These successes included not only official desegregation of Birmingham but also the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and President Kennedy’s submitting a civil rights bill to Congress. For racists, on the other hand, the outcomes were unacceptable. And some of them showed their absolute unwillingness to accept integration by murdering innocents, four of them at church. That day, September 15, 1963, the mood in the nation abruptly switched from exhilaration to sobriety.
The mood and, I think, the strategies, in the civil rights movement shifted gears, too. Organizers and activists needed to take advantage of both situations—the marches and the legislation as well as the tragic murders. So, the movement gained urgency, legitimacy, and widespread support.