“I WANT MY FREEDOM.”

 “Who forced you to march?”

Audrey, a third-grader at Birmingham’s all-black Center Elementary School, sat on a straight-backed chair in a vast and otherwise empty room in Juvenile Detention. Dressed in a pinafore and Mary Janes with turned-down socks, she looked across a broad conference table at five big scary white men. She wondered if they planned to kill her.

“Nobody forced me,” she answered.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. I decided myself.”

“Why?”

“I want my freedom. I want to be able to go places and do things like anybody else.”

“Are you against America?”

“No, sir.”

This slightly truncated quotation is an account of one black child’s experience during the civil rights era. It comes from my debut nonfiction book, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, February 2012).

On May 2, 1963, Audrey Faye Hendricks, then nine years old, tried to march with several hundred other black kids (all older than she was) from a church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, to City Hall. She was arrested less than two blocks from the church and spent a week in jail. During that week, a matron threatened her with solitary (she was playing a board game she’d carried with her and didn’t hear the matron tell her to sit down) and was interrogated.

Audrey shared this story with a civil rights historian, who interviewed her in 1995 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum/educational center/archives built across the street from the historic church. I read her interview online, and, during one of my three research trips to Birmingham, I had the honor of talking with Audrey at her home.

Above all, I needed to know what she was protesting about. How could a nine-year-old’s life be so hard that she’d go to jail to change it?

For the purposes of today’s post—Independence Day, 2011—Audrey’s understanding of freedom is particularly apt. Her response, “I want to be able to go places and do things like anybody else,” is both charmingly simple and rousingly universal, the nugget and the epitome of what it means to be free.

She and three other black children—James, Arnetta, and Wash—are the focus of my book. They tell the story of how they and about 3,000 other high school and elementary school kids desegregated what some people considered the most racially violent city in the South. For me, learning what it meant for them NOT to be free, during the years before they won the battle, was like journeying into a foreign country—a country separated by geography, by time, and by myself.

I grew up, white and Jewish, in Columbus, Ohio, and was a high-school senior in 1963. Housing and schools in Columbus were de facto segregated. I didn’t know any black people, except our maid, Betty. Theoretically, however, we could all go to the same restaurants and movie theaters. If we did, which I don’t recall, I probably gaped but, at least, I didn’t have to worry that, if a black family also decided to have dinner at Marzetti’s, they’d be arrested before being served their salads.

What I learned about civil rights mostly came through reading newspapers, watching Huntley-Brinkley, and singing “freedom songs” along with Joan Baez LPs—not through living it, the way Audrey, James, Arnetta, and Wash did. So, my first explorations into Birmingham circa 1963 entailed learning the facts of segregation, which were extreme and incontrovertible.

Birmingham’s Segregation Ordinances, adopted and expanded in the early 1940s, made it “unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectively separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.”

And, this was, literally, just the beginning of legally mandated “Separation of the Races.” Anyone—white or black—who played ball or went to a party or a meeting with someone of the other race or who sat in the wrong bus station waiting room or used the wrong “toilet facilities” could be prosecuted.

Reading these stipulations was one thing. Absorbing what it meant to live under the virtual apartheid that defined the place was another. Anyone—white or black—who so much as questioned the sanity or justice of these regulations invited brutal retribution by the Ku Klux Klan. Many recordings of interviews I conducted contain silences while I sat speechless, shaking my head, after listening to the stories both black and white Birminghamians told me about the facts of their utterly divided lives. Two women—one white, one black—told me that desegregation, when it finally, slowly began to take root during the summer of 1963, thanks to the children who marched and went to jail, liberated everyone.

Freedom—invoked in civil rights songs and on picket signs—had seemed a vague, undefined concept until I delved into and came to understand its complete absence. Given the extremes in Birmingham prior to 1963, freedom there had concrete definitions: eating lunch while sitting at the counter rather than standing outside; getting hired as a clerk, not just a janitor, in downtown department stores. (It also retained concrete limitations: schools remained segregated as did parks and the police department, among other services, for many years.)

Except in places of extremes (I’ve also written for kids about Rwanda, for instance), “freedom” seems to me to be a mixture of the specific and the relative. As such, it is ever-elusive, ever-reconfigured, ever-threatened.

Researching this book has led me to consider my own past, my assumptions, my prejudices, and my ignorances. I have come to wonder what lacks of freedom I am ignoring in the world today, just as other white people did, some under duress and others by preference, in Birmingham almost 50 years ago. They’re out there, possibly less stark, less literally black and white, than during the civil rights period. They’re also inside, I realize.

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15 Comments

Filed under Research, Writing and Life

15 responses to ““I WANT MY FREEDOM.”

  1. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    I’ve always looked forward to the release of your book, Cynthia, ever since I heard you read an excerpt in Chicago. But now–wow! It’s even harder to wait.

    My parents lived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1963. My dad was stationed there with the Air Force, and it was their first time living in the south (they’re from Oregon and Connecticut). Listening to their stories is the closest I’ve ever come to first-hand accounts of segregation in those days, and my parents were only witnesses, not victims or participants. I’ll be sure to pass your book along to them, as well.

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    • Cynthia Levinson

      At the time, your parents probably didn’t feel like victims because they had freedom of movement. However, if you think about all the intelligent, thoughtful people they were not allowed to interact with and all the stupid rules they, too, had to follow, it becomes clear that they, too, were victimized.

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      • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

        You’re right, Cynthia. After my mother had first moved to Montgomery, she sat down at a counter and was told she had to move because it was the “black counter.” She had no idea what the man was talking about at first, since the counter itself was red, not black!

        It’s heartbreaking to think of how many poets and musicians and scientists (among many, many other professions) that we will never know because of slavery and segregation in this country. What a loss.

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  2. I waited hours to think of a comment worthy of this post, one rich in appreciation for freedom and all your insights. But the truth is, what this post inspired most in me is impatience. I cannot WAIT to read your book, Cynthia! Thanks for this amazing teaser!

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  3. I am eager to read your book and wish I had it NOW! Please contact me at crasco at rif dot org if you do a blog tour or if there is another way I might assist you when the book debuts. Thank you for this story, we need it.

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    • Cynthia Levinson

      Thank you, Carol. I will hold a blog tour, through EMU’s Debuts, and will definitely let you know about it. I really appreciate your interest and support.

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  4. J. Anderson Coats

    The past is indeed a foreign country, and one we don’t always like visiting for too long or even looking at too closely. But forgetting, willfully or otherwise, is worse. Books like yours do important work: shining a big bright light on events in our collective past when it would be easier and less painful to consider them safely contained in the mists of history.

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    • Cynthia Levinson

      Your reference to “our collective past” is very apt. I think many of us would like to ‘tsk’ at those benighted people in those ignorant times. But, in many cases, those people and times are still with us, even are us.

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  5. Great post, Cynthia. Thank you. Despite knowledge to the contrary, I still always find it hard to believe these things are so a part of our nation’s so very recent history. It is good for all of us to be reminded. How amazingly brave and intelligent those young marchers were, and how horribly fearful and close-minded the adults persecuting them. Thank goodness we have progressed beyond those times, but yes, it does make me wonder what injustices we are overlooking today because of our own fears and judgements. That is an important part of why this story needs to be told. I can’t wait to read your book!

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    • Cynthia Levinson

      You’re right that the adults were fearful and close-minded. I wondered how a town could tolerate–encourage–a police commissioner to harass young kids like that, and I have a chapter on views of white adults and kids at the time.

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  6. Pingback: How much research is too much research? | EMU's Debuts

  7. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Like I’ve always said…Can’t WAIT for this book to come out! The scene here is riveting. And to think it’s all true. So sad and yet so inspiring as well. What brave, insightful children.

    I find the line, “Are you against America?” to be particularly disturbing. Stunningly so.

    Excellent post, Cynthia. Thanks so much!

    Lynda

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