- Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary
On August 6, 1965, surrounded by well-known civil rights movement leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Five months before, in response to the brutal beating of peaceful protestors on Selma, Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge, Johnson had voiced his support for civil rights legislation that would "eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote." Two weeks after the president's speech, King led non-violent activists on a five-day march from Selma to the state capitol—an event which captured widespread media attention, brought national support for the black freedom struggle, and helped push the proposed voting rights law through Congress.
While many Americans, including school children, are familiar with the historic Voting Rights Act and the big events that helped inspire its passage—Bloody Sunday, Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech, and the Selma to Montgomery March—few know the long history of Selma voter registration efforts, or would recognize the names of local movement leaders. And fewer still understand the central role that young people played in the Selma campaign and how they helped to change the nation's laws. This is the story that Elizabeth Partridge tells in her moving and scholarly account, directed toward young people, Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. Partridge begins her book well before events usually associated with the Selma campaign. In 1963, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists joined with local leaders to begin an earnest campaign to get Selma blacks registered to vote. That was the year of ten-year-old Joanne Blackmon's first arrest; she had accompanied her grandmother, who attempted to register to vote at the county courthouse, and found herself riding a yellow school bus for the first time—on her way to jail. In the next two years, Joanne [End Page 161] would be jailed ten more times. Her slightly older sister, Lynda, would be jailed nine times.
Joanne and Lynda are just two of the young people whose stories frame Marching for Freedom and help us to see the importance of youth to the civil rights movement and understand how they experienced and viewed events already acknowledged as momentous in America's struggle for racial justice. Partridge deftly chronicles the Selma campaign, from its beginnings in 1963, to Martin Luther King's arrival to kick off Selma's voting rights crusade in January 1965, to the well-known events that spring—through the perspective of children and youth.
That perspective, and because she often uses the words of the young participants themselves, allows readers to see and at times even feel what it meant to be involved in the struggle for racial equality. Readers hear sixth-grader Martha Griffin describe her experiences in jail, thirteen-year-old Cliff Moton explain what it felt like being chased by armed deputies into the countryside and why he joined the movement, and how high school students met the challenges they faced with "laughter and songs" (p. 47). We see how local black youth like Lynda Blackmon, Bobby Simmons, Sheyann West, and Charles Mauldin experienced Bloody Sunday and the five-day march to Montgomery. We also literally observe young people in action, through the book's photographs, which identify (several for the first time) some of the movement's young participants. The narrative that emerges about the struggle for civil rights in Selma from this vantage point is gripping and deeply personal.
But Marching for Freedom is no mere sentimental story. While other children's books on the black freedom struggle, including some autobiographies, often use ideas about children as helpless and innocent to highlight the horrors of Jim Crow and the fight for racial justice, Partridge makes clear that the young people whose stories she vividly tells were activists—historical actors, not victims. Moreover, Partridge engages with significant historiographic issues...