Carole Boston Weatherford: Birmingham, 1963 (Wordsong PB 2023 - originally HC 2007)

Sixty years ago, in 1963, on August 28, approximately 250,000 people, at that time the largest crowd seen in the nation’s capital, gathered on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – Lincoln who one hundred years earlier had issued the Emancipation Proclamation setting the slaves free – the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of the great speeches in (African) American history, I Have a Dream.

The fictive, unnamed young narrator of Carole Boston Weatherford’s picture book (‘pictures’ here archival photographs), Birmingham, 1963, remembers: “The year I turned ten,/ Mama, Daddy and I stood at Lincoln’s feet/ While King’s dream woke the nation from a long night of wrongs.”  

Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 was one of the most racist and segregated cities in America, Black and white separated in schools, restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation and bus depot waiting rooms with signs like “Colored – Waiting Room” directing Blacks to separate facilities. And between 1945 and 1962 there had been some fifty unsolved bombings in African American and mixed Black and white neighborhoods, earning Birmingham the nickname of ‘Bombingham’.

Not everybody shared King’s dream of equality with jobs and freedom for all, regardless of race. When King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to join local efforts to end segregation and discrimination in jobs and housing, on April 12 King was arrested and put in jail.

In response, on May 2, young people between the ages of six and eighteen took to the streets in ‘The Children’s March’, bearing signs like “Can a man love God and hate his brother?” Our young narrator tells the story: “The year I turned ten/ I missed school to march with other children/ For a seat at whites-only lunch counters.// … we chanted “We Shall Overcome.”/ Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,/ And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.”

But racists and the Ku Klux  Klan, a white hate group, were not finished. After King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, they planted nineteen sticks of dynamite under the steps to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, injuring 21 people and killing four young black girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, whose pictures are seen on the front cover of the book.

Birmingham was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. The bombing of a church and the killing of four young girls shook the nation and the world at large, forcing the U.S. Congress in 1964 to pass the first major civil rights legislation in modern times.

Aftermath. At the end of her Author’s Note Carole Boston Weatherford writes: “In 1965, the Federal Bureau of Investigation named four suspects in the bombing, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked the evidence and no one was charged with the crime.” In 1977 the first suspect was found guilty, in 1988 the second, the third and fourth convicted in 2001 and 2002, respectively. CBW: “Unbelievably, the case was not closed until thirty-nine years after the bombing took place.”

UFI // 26 January 2023 

Note: Carole Boston Weatherford (1956-) is the author of more than sixty books of poetry and prose, almost exclusively picture books for children or books for young adults.  

Her latest book is Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda Books, 2021). Up to 300 citizens in the prosperous African American Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were killed in the 1921 massacre, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. It won the 2022 Coretta Scott King Book Award for both author and veteran Tulsa-born illustrator Floyd Cooper (1956-2021).