When we listen to President Barack Obama deliver a speech, some of us may recall the sacrifices required to get to this place in history, but others have forgotten—or never knew—the whole story of the civil rights movement in America.
Cynthia Levinson has found that many adults have never heard of the Children's March that happened in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, in which hundreds of children were jailed after marching for civil rights. With We've Got a Job, she hopes to inform both children and adults. Here, Levinson discusses her everyday heroes and why their stories still matter decades later.
Find other books about children and the civil rights movement.
Your book is for children, but adults are going to find it interesting. How might their reading experiences differ?
Though it's clearly geared for children, adults do learn from it. I've had a lot of comments from adults about how little they knew about what was happening in the South. I'm also discovering a lot of denial.
In chapter 10, I talk about what white people knew or didn't know, and I make a reference to a woman who worked in the Jefferson County Courthouse. I interviewed her, and she was very nice and friendly until I mentioned the children and asked her if she knew the children were in jail in the building where she had her office, where she went every day. She got very angry.
We don't want to know we let this happen. For me, my ignorance turned into a quest to find out what happened. I think for many adults it's that way.
You describe very powerful, horrific images. Did you ever hesitate to include these images, or did you feel this was the story that needed to be told?
I did know it was the story that had to be told. There are actually some things that are not in the book.
Audrey [Hendricks]' mother said that she was galvanized to act when a young black man walking down the road near Birmingham was attacked and castrated. My editor and I talked a lot about whether to include that incident. I wanted to; this was interesting information about Audrey's mother, and it was a parallel to Audrey's experience of seeing a policeman allow his dog to attack an elderly man and knock him down. But neither my editor nor I wanted to use the word "castrated." I tried to find synonyms, but ultimately we didn't include the incident. It was so, so brutal.
We also talked about raising the age range, specifically because of the dogs. That seemed to be the most frightening thing. I understand why that would be upsetting, but, after all, Audrey was 9, and many of the marchers were that age. If they can do that, why should we paternalistically think we should keep 9-year-olds from reading about it?
In addition to the idea of fighting for what you believe in, you raise other issues: success is incremental, teamwork is more important than individual glory—why are these important things for children to read about?
Teamwork, I love that idea. That actually had not occurred to me, but I think you're right about that. I've been having discussions with 11th and 12th graders about what makes a hero. Ask them, and you tend to hear about celebrities, which is understandable, but I think we have to redefine the definition of hero to include someone who brings soup to someone who's sick. We can all be everyday heroes.
Why did you include Washington Booker's story? He wasn't practicing nonviolent protest, he was part of the riots.
I couldn't ignore the rioting. And Wash is incredibly candid about himself. He told me very forthrightly that while other kids were out there being peaceful, he and his friends were out there trying to hit as many police in the head as they could. The riots didn't involve just adults, it was children as well.
I also hope there are kids who will read this book and identify with Wash. I'm developing a program for teachers that I call "Reluctant Readers Meet Reluctant Hero," and that's going to focus on Wash, the dropout, the one who never went to school, who walked the rails. And who then became a poet!
Andi Diehn lives in a house full of books in Enfield, N.H. Find more of her work at andidiehn.com.