When Lynda Blackmon Lowery set her sights on marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, she had two goals. First and foremost, she wanted to help her father and grandmother win the right to vote. But after having been severely injured and traumatized on the infamous day known as Bloody Sunday, she also aimed to confront the governor of Alabama.
“I wanted to get to Governor Wallace to show him what he had done to me,” says Lowery, who at age 15 was the youngest person to march the entire way from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King. “That was just something that I felt I had to do; I wanted to let him know that I was not going to stop. Someday I was going to be his worst nightmare: an educated, independent, black female, and he would have to deal with me. I was going to grow up and be somewhere on the front line trying to get things changed.”
Though she never came face to face with Wallace, she was well on her way to becoming the strong, efficacious woman she is today.
Lowery’s remarkable story is chronicled in the Kirkus-starred narrative, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, written by veteran children’s and young adult writers Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley. While researching their 2006 book Journeys for Freedom, they called the Civil Rights Museum in Selma to inquire about possibly interviewing someone who was involved in the voting rights movement. The woman who answered the phone happened to be Lowery’s younger sister, Joanne, who in turn put the authors in touch with Lowery. A brief account of her story was included in Journeys for Freedom, but the authors were so inspired by her narrative they wanted to tell it more thoroughly. After 35 hours of interviews and the passage of 10 years, Leacock and Buckley finally completed the book. Lowery says that in addition to the satisfaction she derived from serving as a primary source, telling her story to her co-authors was extremely cathartic for her.
“The more you talk about it, the more you feel the pain leaving you,” says Lowery. “Part of my desire when I was doing this was to get it out so I could deal with the hurtful parts for myself. When I would talk about being beaten on that bridge, I would cry. When I would talk about seeing my sister and thinking she was dead, I would cry. And now I have gotten to a point where I can talk about them and not cry.”
However, seeing them on the silver screen in Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award nominated Selma still triggered her emotions some 50 years later.
“I could not watch it,” says Lowery, speaking of the Bloody Sunday scene. “It was filmed right there on that bridge, which made it so very real in the movie.”
Since Lowery was intimately involved in Dr. King’s work, I wondered how she views the contemporary pursuit of racial equality. If MLK’s ardent approach was steady, loving, nonviolent confrontation, how, as a culture, are we furthering King’s mission?
“We're not,” says Lowery. “We have a whole generation of people who do not know—nor care about—their history, as far as I'm concerned. ‘And justice for all’ means different things to different ethnic groups, different people and different classes and creeds. I was telling somebody yesterday that I would someday go on a nonviolent march with people who say, ‘Black lives matter.’ But we don't have anything concrete like we did back there. We have nobody that I would follow today, that I would lay down my life for.”
One major theme in Lowery’s story that was largely missing in Selma is the critical role children played in the voting rights movement. In the last paragraph of the book, Lowery says, “The Selma movement was a kids’ movement.” When asked to elaborate, she quotes lyrics from the song, “Glory,” by John Legend and Common:
“No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy
Welcome to the story we call victory.”
“That’s what we had, and that’s what it took,” says Lowery. “When adults would go and try to register [to vote], somebody would be there to take pictures of people and take them around to employers. Folks would lose their jobs. Dr. King was our general, true enough. But every general has lieutenants and foot soldiers. The kids were the advancing foot soldiers of the movement. We went to jail. We did the work; the adults did the planning. They fed us, talked to us, taught us and then sent us to do what they could not do. Even if they were not out there walking and marching, they took care of us while we were doing it.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer living in Austin, Texas.