YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist, 2013
In the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, black leaders from throughout the US wanted to have a series of large demonstrations against segregation. The leaders wanted adults in Birmingham to march and allow themselves to be arrested until the jails could hold no more people. The black adults, though, wanted to wait and see what would happen to segregation when a new city government was put in place. So the leaders turned to children. Thousands of children marched and thousands were arrested. The impact was very significant both on a local level and on a national level. We’ve Got a Job follows four of the student protesters, three of whom were trained in nonviolence and a fourth who became violent. This is a very important story, one which ultimately came a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I have a very strong reaction to the story, a reaction different from any other review of this book I have read. I was five in 1963. Over the course of the next several years, Martin Luther King, Jr. became a hero of mine. It never occurred to me that King was not entirely the noble, non-violent idealist I thought him to be. He was also a political pragmatist. The civil rights movement was losing momentum in 1963, and King needed something to bring it back to life. Adults in Birmingham weren’t willing to help, so he let children march and go to jail. I should point out that King wasn’t in favor of letting children march, but he allowed it. I should also point out that the children were not being coerced. They knew there was a job to do and they were willing to do it. But can children make an informed decision? Is it fair to let children put themselves in the path of dogs and firehoses?
It’s a credit to Cynthia Levinson’s very straightforward telling of this story that it caused me to doubt one of my lifelong heroes. A glimpse into the fallibility and pragmatism of the leaders of political movements is a good thing, as is seeing the confusion of those leaders.
The children are the heroes in this story, and in reading the unemotional accounts of acts of white hatred against the black children, it’s clear that they were heroic indeed.
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