Book Review: Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley
If you know a young person who's looking to learn more about or connect with the Civil Rights Movement, put this book in their hands.
Lynda Blackmon Lowery tells her story of her experience with Steady Loving Confrontation with passion. As a female protestor, her story nicely complements John Lewis's March trilogy.
The first line in the book grabs your attention: "By the time I was fifteen years old, I had been in jail nine times."
She explains matter-of-factly what it was like growing up as a black teenager in Selma. Her mother died when Lynda was seven because no one at the all-white hospital would treat her. Her grandmother helped raise her and made sure Lynda heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.
She began her protesting activities as a gopher at various sit-ins to tell parents that their high school teen had been jailed. By fourteen, though, she was marching.
The organizers of these student protests knew what they were doing. And the kids picked up on the march, go to jail, get released, get to the next march pattern quickly.
Parents helped by packing sandwiches and treats to replace the bad jail food. Other students who were the "brains" stayed in school to do everyone's homework and take tests for the students who were marching.
Repeatedly, Lynda references the power of song to quell fear and the comfort from the sheer number of students in jail together.
She didn't know Jimmie Lee Jackson, but hearing how the police shot him in the stomach terrified her and the other marchers. When he died, hundreds of people attended his funeral and the idea for the march from Selma to Montgomery was born.
Lynda participated in the march on Bloody Sunday. While the sheer number of white people scared her, seeing the state troopers put gas masks instilled a new level of fear.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Lynda describes the numerous people she met who had seen Bloody Sunday on television and traveled to Selma to join the protestors.
On March 21, 1965, Lynda marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and kept going. She was one of the 300 people who were permitted to march the entire way to Selma. She turned 15 on March 22. She was the youngest person to participate in the march.
On that birthday morning, Lynda saw white National Guardsmen and got scared. People wanted to send her home because her panic attack was extreme enough that she was holding up the march.
That's when she met veteran Jim Letherer. He assured her that he would lie down and die for her. Lynda knew that she wanted to be the person who would stand up against anything wrong, so she couldn't let her fear of dying prevent her from marching. She marched next to Jim Letherer singing freedom songs together.
On March 25, the 300 marchers and thousands more filled the streets of Montgomery. She describes several valuable lessons she learned from marching, including how there were many people ,white and black, who really cared about her and the black people of Selma.
Throughout her story, Lynda gives context to events from the past. She describes being rounded up by the police for marching:
She also gives numbers to illustrate the lack of representation African-Americans had in her county.
In 1964, there were fewer white citizens in Dallas County than black citizens (14,400 white to 15,115 black). However, out of the 9,530 people registered to vote, 9,195 were white. As a teacher, if I were reading this book with my students, I would make them do that math: that's 335 registered black voters!
At the end of Lynda's story, she includes mini-biographies on Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Leroy Moten. All of them were victims of violence related to the Selma to Montgomery march.
She includes two pages on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and recent changes that have been struck out by the Supreme Court. While her tone is cautionary, she doesn't delve into specifics regarding voting rights. She piques your curiosity.
Finally, there is a Discussion Guide where Lynda answers questions about living during segregation, learning about nonviolence, being such a young protestor, participating in the voting rights movement, and living today with racism. Each of these five sections also have thought-provoking questions that teachers or parents could use to frame a discussion about this book.
As part of my reading of March, I also watched the American Experience episode "Freedom Summer." The quote below, the final thought from that two-hour documentary, demonstrates how Ms. Amelia Boynton's rallying cry "A voteless people is a hopeless people" empowered by Lewis's "One Man! One Vote!" will lead to representation and change.