Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom"
by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

I was 28 when courageous black Alabama citizens and white sympathizers set forth March 21, 1965, across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their successful march to Montgomery, the state capital, to demonstrate their determination to force the state of Alabama to allow all of its black citizens to register to vote.  I, like many Americans, had watched on television the brutal acts committed by the local police and sheriff’s deputies to end demonstrators’ attempt March 7 to cross the bridge and march to Montgomery.  Having lived in Tennessee for two years, having years later received a bachelor’s degree in history, and having thereafter become a public school teacher, I had not been na├»ve about racial prejudice prior to the Selma events.  Nonetheless, I was shocked.

A week after recently watching the movie Selma, I read a, excellent memoir (just published by Dial Books) about the Selma to Montgomery event written in retrospect (assisted by two professional writers) by a teenage participant, Lynda Blackmon Lowery.  Unlike the movie, Selma, many parts of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom; My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March stirred my emotions.  Geared for readers in their teen years, the memoir reaches out as well to adults born after 1965 and to jaded seniors like me.

Here are my reasons for recommending this book especially to young people.

Turning 15 is a personal story.  We experience vicariously the thoughts, emotions, and actions of an actual participant.  We gain insight about the effects of racial hatred on actual African Americans.  We learn of the sense of security felt by most black children growing up in segregated black communities.  We understand better the need black Americans felt to right collectively racially-committed wrongs.  Mrs. Lynda Lowery cites her grandmother’s advice: “… if you give someone or something control over you, then you’ve given up yourself.”  We celebrate the realization experienced by thoroughly-segregated people like the young Lynda that white racists did not represent all white Americans.  After the bloody attempt by early demonstrators to cross the Pettus bridge March 7, many white people traveled to Selma to exhibit their support.  Lynda wrote: “It was a whole different feeling suddenly with white people living in your house.  They marched with us and were willing to go to jail with us.  They ate what we ate.  We cooked collard greens and cornbread, and they ate it and enjoyed it as much as we did.  They were happy to be with us, even if they had to sleep on the floor.    There was a whole new feeling in Selma.”

I especially appreciated the details Mrs. Lowery gave us about her experiences.  Here are two examples of information I did not know and found fascinating.  School children were used extensively to demonstrate and crowd the jails.  Mothers who were maids took employers’ food home surreptitiously that their children ate the next day after they were arrested and put in jail.  Twenty-one school girls, mostly high school students, were put in a steel cell (called the “sweatbox”) that had no windows, water, toilet, or lights and kept there until every girl had passed out.  It is always the detail of individuals’ lives that make history especially interesting.

This memoir is written simply, but it touches upon all the important Selma/Montgomery subject matter events.  Anybody who reads at or above the sixth grade level will have no difficulty finishing it in one sitting.  Yet the reader will be informed about every topic or event an instructor would want a student of his to read about, examples ranging from the different instances of segregation existent in Selma to the deaths of three people murdered, one by the police and the other two by racist thugs.  Mrs. Lowery also explains, quite simply, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and how it has been degraded most recently by the United States Supreme Court.

Finally, I am concerned about what our young generation doesn’t but should know about our nation’s past.  Racism in America persists.  My grandchildren and friends their ages should be exposed to appealing sources of information that instruct them to recognize that no nation is a “shining city on the hill” and that those who proclaim such assertions should be looked upon with skepticism.  Take nothing, therefore, for granted.  Human history is a story of struggle for freedom and dignity against unwarranted control.  Lynda learned from her experiences that “the person I wanted to be was a person who would stand up against what was wrong.  I wanted not only to protect myself, but to protect others, not only to fight for myself, but to be out there fighting for others.”

Mrs. Lowery’s memoir is a worthwhile, appealing book.