Civil Rights Commemorations

We are in the midst of 50th anniversary commemorations of the many significant Civil Rights events of the 1960s. While most people would agree that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision launched the movement, the groundswell of support and involvement from all over America really commanded the nation’s attention in the years from the first summer of the Freedom Riders in 1961 to Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Time is relative. Older baby boomers remember these events from their youth, but today’s students see this era as part of long-ago history. Many may be only familiar with some of the really iconic figures of that time, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. While their leadership can never be diminished, the movement involved thousands of American citizens from all walks of life who joined in this cause for justice. This is all the more reason for our students to read some of the fine new titles that honor this era.   Here is a selection of some of the best of the past year.

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell. 9780545477253. April 2014. Grades 9-12.

3398470On June 21, 1964, three young men, two white and one black, were murdered in Mississippi by members of the Ku Klux Klan. As volunteers with the Freedom Summer movement, they were helping black citizens register to vote. Their bodies were found two months later, and national outrage followed. The state of Mississippi refused to prosecute the offenders, so the FBI did. Eventually, a few men served relatively short prison terms. Forty years later, in 2005, Edgar Killen was finally convicted of orchestrating the murders and sent to prison. The brutality of the crime and the willingness of so many white citizens to overlook or excuse it should be an eye-opener to those students who do not know this piece of American history.

Because They Marched by Russell Freedman. 9780823429219. August 2014. Grades 7-10.

0823429210_01_LZZZZZZZAs he has done so successfully in the past, award-winning YA author Russell Freedman has written another excellent book about an important chapter in American history. Although the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, segregation and suppression of the black vote in the South was still the norm. No place was this oppression more prevalent than in Selma, Alabama. Thus, a group of committed activists, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, to protest the injustices of that time. There were three marches. The most famous became known as Bloody Sunday because the march turned violent. Many protesters were injured, among them Senator John Lewis, who was 25 at the time. The marches helped prod Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that same year. Freedman combines compelling photographs with excellent research to produce a fresh telling of these important events.

Freedom Summer: the 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin. 9780823429202. March 2014. Grades 5-8.

0823429202_01_LZZZZZZZCovering some of the same material as The Freedom Summer Murders, but broader in scope and written for a younger audience, this title by Susan Goldman Rubin chronicles the watershed summer of 1964 when hundreds of activists, many of them white college students from the North, converged on Mississippi , the epicenter of the segregated South. Although black citizens could technically vote by that time, only 7% were registered to do so in that state. The other 93% remained oppressed by such Jim Crow tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests. Volunteers held Freedom Schools to educate black people about their right to vote and to help them register to do so. Readers will learn about some of the great leaders of that summer—Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Bernice White, and many others. Abundant and compelling photographs help tell the story of these brave individuals who risked much for human dignity.

Freedom Riders (We Shall Overcome) by Rachel Tisdale. 9781477760611. Jan 2014. Grades 3-6.

147776061X_01_LZZZZZZZThis book is part of a new series from Power Kids Press that surveys the Civil Rights Movement in seven titles. The Freedom Riders were activists, who, starting in 1961, rode integrated buses throughout the South. Despite the fact that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional by this time, Southern states routinely ignored that fact. By traveling through segregated territory on integrated buses, protesters brought national attention to the way those states disregarded federal law. Despite numerous incidents of violence, including the burning of several buses, these “riders” raised awareness of the cause.

We Shall Overcome: the Story of a Song by Debbie Levy. 9781423119548. December 2013. Grades K-3.

1423119541_01_LZZZZZZZThis picture book for lower elementary students tells the story of a song that originated as gospel music in the era of slavery and became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Before it became associated with civil rights, it was also a favorite song of union organizers. Folksinger Pete Seeger popularized it in the 1950s. Its simple tune and deep emotional appeal made it a rallying song for marches and gatherings during that era, and it remains popular today.


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