Child of the Civil Rights Movement

On Sunday, I presented the children’s story in church, with the children gathered at my feet. Our Director of Religious Exploration, who was giving the Martin Luther King Day message, had asked me to read Paula Young Shelton’s book, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, not knowing that I had met Paula (www.paulasbooks.com) at the Gaithersburg Book Festival and had a signed copy of the book.

Paula’s story starts with her family watching TV in New York City, where she was born, and seeing the burning of a Freedom Rider bus down south. Her father, Andrew Young, a pastor, said, “We have to go help”: help overthrow the Jim Crow laws that kept black people in the back of the buses and trains and out of many restaurants, bathrooms, and schools, and kept black people from voting. So the family moved to Atlanta, and when they were turned away at a restaurant, Paula sat down and pitched a crying fit (“My very first protest, my own little sit-in”). Paula tells about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she called “Uncle Martin,” helping  her learn how to swim. She tells how the black civil rights leadership, including Randolph Blackwell, Hosea Williams, James Orange, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Jean Childs Young (her mom), her dad, and Martin Luther King used to meet and dine in their home. Paula helped carry food to the table. “Daddy was away a lot,” all around the South, organizing, protesting, teaching nonviolence, registering voters, and sometimes being beaten and thrown into jail. Her mom and dad and sisters joined the 50-mile march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This was the third march, not “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when 600 marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers who drove them back with tear gas and horses, beating them bloody with billy clubs. Images of this march, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were broadcast on television to a horrified nation. Instead, Paula describes the March 21 march led by Martin Luther King and made peaceful by nearly four thousand U.S. Army soldiers and members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, all sent by President Lyndon Johnson to protect the marchers. Thousands of people marched: Black and white, young and old, rich and poor. Ministers, priests, and rabbis marched, “people from the South and people from the North.” Paula says, “Since I was only four years old, I could walk just a little while. Mama carried me until she got tired, and then I got passed from aunt to uncle to aunt.” Later that year, the family watched on TV as President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act with Uncle Martin standing at his side. What a wonderful book for children this is, rich with paintings by Raul Colón (http://www.raulcolon.com). What a great way to teach them about the civil rights movement without pictures of violence. By all means, read it to your children.

Later on Sunday, I happened to catch “Andrew Young Presents”  on ABC   (www.andrewyoungpresents). Young was one of the civil rights leaders with Martin Luther King at the motel when he was shot. He later became Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, three-term U.S. Congressman from Georgia, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter, and two-term mayor of Atlanta. On Sunday, he introduced his new documentary, “Leaving Selma,” which tells the story of the “Bloody Sunday” march. It is illustrated with the incredible photos of Spider Martin (www.spidermartin.com), which indelibly recorded this moment in history when black people in the United States organized, demonstrated, marched, risked life and limb, bled, and died to wrest freedom from a white supremacist nation determined to keep them in chains. Artist William C. Byers also records this heroic period for black Americans in his Civil Rights Series of paintings: (www.byersgallery.net/cr0-Civil%20Rights%20Series.htm)

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