When I was in university in England, two events had a big impact on all of us students. We watched the Berlin wall come down, and we saw Nelson Mandela being released from prison. Many of us demonstrated outside the South African embassy in London (including me) calling out for the the South African government to release all political prisoners. All of us grew up in the shadow of the Cold War and it was extraordinary to see the wall come down, knowing that this was the beginning of a new era.
For many young people growing up in the United States during the 50's and 60's, the events associated with the civil rights movement changed their lives. Today's poetry title tells the story of the March on Washington through the eyes of these young people.
Voices from the march on Washington
For ages 11 and up
Boyds Mills Press, 2014, 978-1-62091-785-5
Many of us live in places where people of different races, religions, and cultural backgrounds live together. We embrace the fact that our streets, restaurants, schools, offices, and other places are full of people who are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We recognize that diversity makes our towns and cities richer. This was not always the case. For decades most of the south and some places in the northern parts of the United States were strictly segregated. African Americans could not use the same schools and other public places that white people used. They could not go to swimming pools, could not eat in restaurants, and had to sit at the back in buses. They were second class citizens.
Then a movement, put into motion by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers, began to bring about change. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. By 1963 the civil rights movement had begun to unravel the Jim Crow laws, and on Wednesday August 28 of that year thousands of people gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington.
What would it have been like to be a part of this historic event? What would it have been like to organize it? In this remarkable book of poetry we meet some people who went to the march, who worked hard to make it a success. Some of people we encounter are fictional, while others were really present on that day.
One of the first people we meet is Myrtle Hill, a school teacher, who experiences fear when stones are thrown at the bus she is travelling in from Baltimore, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. A window is broken and passengers scream. People dive for the floor of the bus, and then one of the women starts to sing. Soon more voices join hers and thus the people throw songs at the people who threw rocks.
Soon after, we meet Annie Ross, a nineteen year old college student from Georgia who went to Washington. Sixteen year old Dan Cantrell is also from Georgia, and he goes to the march even though his father tells him not to. Raymond Jarvis also comes from the south. He is from Texas and has suffered at the hands of white supremacists. Ruby May Hollingsworth is only six years old, but she and her family travel all the way from Arkansas. Ruby does not really understand what is going on, but when she is allowed to drink from the same water fountain as a white girl she begins to realize that something important is happening around her.
Emma Wallace travels all the way from a farm in Iowa. She wants to be a part of history, to see what is happening in her country for herself. She is encouraged by her father to see the “national powwow” and perhaps witness the event that will “shame the past / and shape the future.” Renee Newsome, who lives in Washington D.C also has a father who encourages her to be a part of the march, and she goes to the Mall with him and her grandmother.
The stories of these six characters are told in a series of poems, and we are able to see what being on the march meant to them all, how it changed their lives in meaningful ways. We also hear the voices of other people, people like the singer Lena Horne, Coretta Scott King and Charlie Jackson, who was a policeman.
The voices that speak to us from the pages of this book bring the March on Washington to life, helping us to experience this extraordinary time in a personal and powerful way. We come to understand why this event meant so much to so many, and we give thanks that its impact is still being felt today.