Paperback: 228 pages
Publisher: Cypress Creek Publishing (March 15, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.4 x 8.4 inches
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
In an era of racial strife, rollbacks on affirmative action and voting rights legislation, and a general hardening of the arteries of our nation’s moral conscience, it’s a welcome sight to read something that stresses tolerance, reconciliation, and healing. Rosalie Turner’s novel, March With Me, chronicles the controversial Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama in May, 1963, led by those fearless leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. James Bevel. At the time, Birmingham was one of the hot spots in the segregated South, with a slew of beatings, killings, bombings, and other hate mayhem.
Remarkably, Turner, a writer of nearly 30 years, conjures up the social, cultural, and political divide that defined the southern steel city a half century ago. She uses the narrative concept of viewing that turbulent time through the eyes of two girls, one black and one white, both affected by the rigid, restrictive cage of Jim Crow and racial prejudice.
Letitia, a “colored” girl, is fired up by the call to march by the civil rights leaders, although his father wonders if the black folks will turn out for the protest, while Martha Ann, her white counterpart, is confronted by her neighbors who believe the “coloreds are all fired up by outside agitators.
As interesting as this device of mirror images of the girls is, there is something more intriguing, the debate of the use of black children on the front lines of the march. Dr. King wants to get the nation’s attention by employing the media to cover the march, their arrests by the brutal Bull Connor and his violent crew, forcing legislation to bring change to the underfunded, neglected black schools. Both Bevel and Abernathy see an advantage to put the kids in the march, with the white cops holding back on their more aggressive tactics. The two preachers win out and the children were used.
Probably the most engaging portion of the book is the examination of the families of Letitia and Martha Ann, the emotional and cultural details of their households, and the pressures of a racially tense atmosphere on both races. While Dr. King pray and try to fire out the resolve of the black community, many express Bull Connor might try to show the world that Jim Crow is here to stay in Birmingham.
If Martha Ann’s father lays down the law of nobody going downtown during the march, Letitia’s household is cautiously optimistic, because they have never seen anything like this. As Dr. King said during the 1963 event, he told the marchers: “These young people are about their Father’s business. They are carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair. They will bring to this nation a newness and a genuine quality and an idealism that is desperately needed.”
Turner’s descriptions of the march are dramatic and gripping, as Connor’s men turn fire hoses full force, knocking the children off their feet, slamming them against the buildings. The adults of the children are screaming, the children crying, and the cops run to the young marchers, letting dogs rip their young flesh. As Letitia learns the bitter history of her people first-hand, Martha Ann is saddened by the plight of the children at the hands of the violent white men.
In March With Me, Turner follows up on the lives of the girls now grown up into adults through the years from the march in 1963 to 1975 where the debate of racism and class continues. There is no doubt that Jim Crow has loosened its hold on the residents of the New South. Progress has been made, as many of my family and friends can agree, but there is still ambiguity and distrust between the races. With a promise of reconciliation and healing, Turner’s brave novel moves us through the bloody, maddening days of an bygone era, yet her characters offer the reader a crisp snapshot of racist Birmingham in the sixties.
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