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Seven Civil Rights Heroes to Teach Your Kids About

Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only one. So tell your family about the dreams of these other, perhaps lesser-known, leaders.

Marjorie Ingall
January 12, 2017
Photos: Wikipedia
L-R: Bayard Rustin, Ruby Bridges, Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker. Photos: Wikipedia
Photos: Wikipedia
L-R: Bayard Rustin, Ruby Bridges, Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker. Photos: Wikipedia

It’s shocking how little the youth of today know about the civil-rights movement. A few years ago, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 2 percent of high school seniors knew what social issue was addressed in Brown v. Board of Education. The Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in 2014 that 12 states don’t require that schools teach anything about civil-rights history, and also found that most states’ content standards, to put it mildly, suck. Teaching Tolerance gave the majority of states a D or below on their curricula; 20 states got an F. (You can see Teaching Tolerance’s methodology here.)

Furthermore, the way the movement does get taught tends to pump up the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the expense of almost everyone else. Parks didn’t spontaneously decide not to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired, and she didn’t act in a vacuum: She was working strategically with other social-justice leaders. As Teaching Tolerance puts it, “The reduction of the movement into simple fables obscures the broad social, institutional and personal sacrifices of the people who engaged in the struggle.” If we treat King and Parks as singular, we fail to teach kids that they, too—as individuals and as members of communities—have the power to effect change. And we should be wary of presenting kids with too-pat, too-happy conclusions, turning King into a toothless advocate of the colorblind society we’ve now supposedly achieved (yay!) and turning Parks into a woman who ended institutionalized racism (yay!) because, as historian Michael Kammen put it, “amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation.” There’s a reason right-wing leaders invoke King’s words as often as lefties do: If you bat your eyelashes and speak loftily about judging someone by the content of their character, you can avoid wrestling with current issues of inequity and systemic prejudice.

So, as a small corrective, here’s a quick primer on seven African-American civil-rights leaders whose personal stories will entice kids, with a list of books you can give your kids to learn more about heroes other than King. It’s up to you to continue those stories by adding, “We still have work to do.” And then, of course, to engage your family in helping to do that work.

(And, hey, here’s a radical proposition: Let’s not overemphasize the role of Jews in the civil-rights movement. I think for some white Jews, the fact that we were active participants in the 1960s serves as justification and excuse for not being great allies today. It’s more important for us to listen to black people’s current stories, respect their experiences, and sit with their anger than it is for us to trumpet our own involvement in those stories. Therefore, this column will not mention Abraham Joshua Heschel. I know.)

1. Ida B. Wells (1862-1930) was born to slaves and became an educator, journalist, and co-founder of the NAACP. When she was a teenager, her parents died of yellow fever, and she fought to keep her younger siblings together and care for them. She became a teacher in a segregated school at 16, and spread the word about terrible conditions and inadequate resources for black students. In 1891, three of her friends in Memphis who’d opened a grocery store that took black customers away from the established white grocery were lynched. (Their shop had been attacked by white vandals, and they fought back and shot several … but they were murdered in jail before they had a trial.) That sparked her desire to research lynchings; she found that contrary to what white newspapers said, lynchings weren’t prompted by the rapes of white women. They were more commonly a response to public drunkenness, economic competition with whites, and displaying attitudes and behavior that whites perceived as uppity. Also, Wells found, lynchings were more common in years of financial hardship, when cotton was less profitable. White newspaper editors were furious at her for her reporting. One wrote, “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live … is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it.” In the face of such threats to her life, Wells said, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” A book about her to share with kids from 8 to 12: Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told by Walter Dean Myers (the winner of two Newbery Medals and five Coretta Scott King Awards), illustrated by Bonnie Christenson. The book uses lots of quotes from Wells herself, and the watercolor illustrations are powerful.

2. John Lewis (1940-) is a legend, the last living keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. He grew up in rural Alabama, met Martin Luther King Jr., became involved in student activism, and was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. In 1965, at 25, he was beaten into unconsciousness by white cops and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma to Montgomery. “I gave a little blood on that bridge,” he said. “I thought I saw death.” But as white Americans watched police gassing and smashing the skulls of nonviolent protestors, the arc of history began to bend toward justice. You can talk to kids about how Lewis is still fighting today—he represents Georgia in the House of Representatives, and last year he led a sit-in on the House floor after Sen. Chris Murphy spearheaded a 15-hour filibuster in favor of common-sense gun control. Currently Lewis is in the vanguard of the fight against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions—who has been charged with racism for much of his career—as attorney general. In a piece last year for MLK Day, I mentioned the first volume of March, the comic book trilogy Lewis co-authored (along with Andrew Aydin and Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powell); now all three books are out, and they’re spectacular … as well as older-kid-friendly. (I’d say they’re good for kids 11 and up.) You can buy them individually or in a slipcased collection. The comics offer nuance, showing that not all the participants in history agreed with each other about strategy or the use of violence in response to violence. Nuance is good. Especially now.

3. Claudette Colvin (1939-) was a 15-year-old girl in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger … nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. But civil-rights leaders felt that Colvin, a kid who’d been in trouble in school and had been called “mouthy” and “emotional,” wasn’t a good face for the movement. Rosa Parks, a respectable older married lady, was better. Colvin wound up with a police record (after being physically yanked off the bus, manhandled, handcuffed, and jailed). To make matters worse, she soon got pregnant by an older man and was expelled from school. She never got the support she should have from grown civil-rights leaders. Still, she eventually testified in the case that ended segregated buses. Philip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is a spectacularly reported book (Hoose pursued Colvin, who had an unlisted phone number and was living in obscurity, for four years before she agreed to tell her story) that won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2009 and a Newbery Honor in 2010. Teenagers—who often want to stand up to injustice but feel that adults don’t have their backs—will relate.

4. Ruby Bridges (1954-) was the first black child to desegregate the New Orleans public schools. The very youngest children will understand how scary this must have been for a 6-year-old, and how brave she was. Her book, Through My Eyes will resonate with kids 7 and up, and beginning readers (5 and up) will appreciate The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, with gentle watercolor illustrations by George Ford. Because white parents wouldn’t let their kids learn with Ruby, she had one-on-one lessons with a young teacher. Parents can talk about why most schools (including their own kids,’ probably) are still so segregated, and what Americans can do to change that.

5. Ella Baker (1903-1986) was like many women: an active player behind the scenes of history who never got the credit she deserved. She grew up in North Carolina and moved to New York City to work in social justice. She knew that economic parity was essential for equality, and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.” In the 1940s she worked for the NAACP, and in the 1950s she moved to Atlanta to help King establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was most interested in working with young activists, and was one of the people who helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped create Freedom Summer. She said of herself: “You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.” That perspective was how she got the nickname “Fundi,” a Swahili word for someone who teaches a craft to the next generation. Alas, another reason she was perhaps less publicly lauded than she should have been was that the civil-rights movement was largely modeled on the black church, with its male leadership and female congregants. (In fact, no woman was a featured speaker at the March on Washington—Gloria Richardson, a Maryland activist, was told she’d get to give a two-minute speech but her chair was taken offstage and her microphone was whisked away when she got to the podium; even Rosa Parks and Lena Horne were escorted offstage before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.) Today, New York City has a well-regarded, diverse, progressive public school named after her, but if there’s a great children’s book about her, I can’t find it! Someone write one!

6. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was born on a Mississippi plantation, the last of 20 children of a poor sharecropper. In 1961, when she was in the hospital to have a small tumor removed, she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Doctors could legally do that to poor black women then. (The procedure was colloquially known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”) In 1962, after learning that she had the right to vote, she went to try to register, along with a small group of her neighbors. After being made to jump through hoops, they were turned away. On the way home, the group’s bus was pulled over by police for being “the wrong color.” The passengers were terrified…until Hamer began to sing. She sang hymns like “This Little Light of Mine,” and civil-rights songs, and she made her fellow activists feel better. But upon her return to the plantation where she lived and worked as a bookkeeper, she was fired and kicked out of her house. Still, she kept up her activism, despite being brutally beaten, assaulted, and threatened. In 1964, she spoke to the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention, asking, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings?” Hamer’s story is showcased in the poetic, lyrical Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book (the publisher recommends it for kids 9-12) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated with potent multimedia collages by Ekua Holmes. You might also sing “This Little Light of Mine” with kids, and talk about the song’s association with Hamer.

7. Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award an American citizen can attain, in 2013. Here’s what President Obama’s citation said: “Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African-American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.” During his lifetime, Rustin didn’t get the honor he was due, probably because he was gay. (He was also a former Communist, and in the late ’60s, he became more of a hawk, aligning with the American right’s perspective on Israel. Oh, and he was also a big supporter of imperiled and oppressed Soviet Jewry. Look, I found a Jewish connection in this story after all!) There’s a 2007 children’s book about him that I haven’t read: We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry Dane Brinmer, aimed at readers age 9-11. Booklist’s review noted that Rustin’s gay identity is relegated to a small mention in the afterword, so hey, someone else please tell Rustin’s story in all its complexity. Kids can handle it.

A happy and thoughtful Martin Luther King Jr. Day to all.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.