Monday, April 22, 2013

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Levinson

“After the mass meeting, I told my mother, ‘I want to go to jail…’”
-       Audrey Hendricks, age 9

When civil rights leaders Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. failed to rally black community members for a series of protests against segregation in Birmingham in 1963, the responsibility fell to 4,000 of the city’s children. With encouragement from Reverend James Bevel, a 26-year-old former pop musician, children as young as nine agreed to put on their walking shoes and voluntarily submit to arrest.

With maturity beyond her years and a board game in tow, Audrey Hendricks became the youngest participant in the fight against the inequality that still plagued Birmingham, long after the Supreme Court deemed “separate but equal” unconstitutional. Other children who joined the protests included Washington Booker III, a rambunctious 14-year-old who grew up in the projects and saw Birmingham’s police force as “the ultimate terror,” James W. Stewart, a middle-class, light-skinned teenager who refused to be confined by the system, and Arnetta Streeter, who organized the Peace Ponies at her school to help needy people in the black community. Their stories constitute Cynthia Levinson’s award-winning book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.

Levinson alternates chapters of the book between these four participants as they prepare for, participate in, and reminisce about Dr. King’s attempt to “fill the jails” of Birmingham. Levinson weaves the children’s stories with information about the laws that governed Birmingham, and the many attempts, including marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, black Americans participated in to gain the equality they deserved.

As a fan of non-fiction writing, I was most excited to read this book, and ultimately, most disappointed. While Levinson shows clear expertise in her subject, the book reads like a Wikipedia article, rather than a serious literary work. It lacks depth and emotion. Reading about little Audrey, alone in jail, I couldn’t help but wonder if she felt abandoned because her parents had not come to get her, or scared because she didn’t know anyone in the cell. Was she proud of herself for taking part in the march, or was did she have moments of regret? While the subject matter was indeed fascinating, I found the book itself incredibly shallow. I kept hoping it would finally bare its soul, but found that it was little more than an unimaginative retelling of history (albeit a lesser known aspect of history).

Despite the glowing reviews, I found We’ve Got a Job to be a lengthy, dry read, and struggled to believe most students below the senior-level would stick with it if not required. I would not have finished the book if not for this class.

Of course, We’ve Got a Job has its merits: as a reference piece, it provides numerous facts, pictures and charts that will serve students well when researching the civil rights movement. It examines an important event from another angle, and perhaps even helps students relate to that event by filtering it through the eyes of teenagers. While I was disappointed with the lack of emotion and depth, I recognize the piece's worth. In all, I see it as a resource, rather than a good read. But don't take my word for it - read it yourself!


Clarice Howard said...

It seem like this book was very factual based and as you said, does not focus on emotions. I hate this and love this. I hate this because I know I absolutely hate reading books with no emotions from the characters. However, I think very factual reading is good for students to learn. I think that it can really help to prepare students for more college level work in all college courses. Students need to learn to read all different types of read materials, wether is it historical, biographical, autobiographical, science based, ect. Knowing how to read all types of writing will only be beneficial to the students in the long run.

Jasmine Fells said...

I enjoyed your review. I like books that are based on facts and that is extremely important for the classroom because they should be taught some history. Books such as these will more than likely bore students and may only interest the students who are really into history. There are was to bring out the fun in things when it comes to history, it's just about the way you present it. Good job again with this review