In celebration of Black History Month, we are honored to feature works by and/or about the civil rights movement and those writers and characters who have sacrificed more than their hearts and lives in the name of racial equality. Equality, in all facets, is not wholly complete and it is a struggle that will only be complete when all people are free. Or, as Dr. King said:
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
We begin our month-long feature with a review of Rosalie T. Turner’s March with Me and we encourage each of you LitStackers to mimic the actions of the pioneers of the past by standing up against intolerance.
April 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Two girls stand at the cusp of age 16 with all the excitement and anticipation of youth spread out before them. One of them, Letitia, is bright and ambitious, part of a loving family near Kelly Ingram Park: older brother, younger sister, mother, father and beloved matriarch, Mama Lucy. She is black. The other girl, Martha Ann, is white and lives “over the mountain” with her parents and her younger brother, and dreams of beau and dresses with crinoline petticoats and the latest album on sale at the Record Rack. Neither girl is really aware of the other, moving in different lives and even different communities within segregated Birmingham.
Lettie lives in a world where the families and the community may not be affluent, but they are closely knit and supportive of each other. But there is also a lot of anger, especially on the part of the young people, for the fledgling civil rights movement seems to be mere spinning of wheels despite the charismatic leaders who keep searching for a way to bring attention to the issue without resorting to violence. The adults in the community chafe, too, but they are also afraid of retribution from “the whites” – the loss of jobs, the denial of education, the narrowing of opportunity – to actively participate in marches or demonstrations.
The world that Martha Ann lives in seems so much more secure, yet it is not perfect. At night in bed she often hears her father’s voice raised in anger, and once her mother sought refuge from his temper in Martha Ann’s room, but there is never any explanation of why he gets so upset. Martha Ann’s mother never talks about those nights, and does all she can to make it appear that everything is just fine. And because the need to appear perfect is so strong in Martha Ann’s social circle, she can’t even confide in her friends about how she feels.
As time passes and the girls get older, they go through momentous times and events that change how they see themselves in their worlds – one in civil disobedience, the other in personal justification. Although Lettie becomes more and more aware of the limitations vested on her due to the color of her skin, she must weigh her need to address her anger with her desire to effect change from within the established system. Martha Ann may be able to turn a blind eye to the plight of the “Negroes,” but she cannot ignore how the civil unrest, and the forced civil rights gains of the “coloreds,” brings out deep seated prejudices in her friends and her family.
Rosalie T. Turner has done a wonderful job in showing just how difficult and slow the fight for civil rights was, and how deeply it affected those involved. Nowadays, it’s easy for us to think that attitudes and actions changed due to one speech, or one march, the repeal of one insidious piece of legislation or the passing of another, or due to a single bullet. But in reality, it took years of sustained pressure, even after laws were enacted to dismantle segregation, even after the public consciousness was rattled, to make even a dent in the attitudes of an entrenched white society and for a measured increase in the quality of life for black Americans. Letitia and Martha Ann are 15 at the start of the book, and it is not until 12 years later (and after a catastrophic event) that the two women finally interact with and begin to understand each other.
While March With Me may not be the most layered or nuanced treatment of the civil rights movement (it reads almost like a journal rather than a stronger piece of literature), it nevertheless gives deft consideration to the pressures and conflicts of the un-championed players of “the Movement” who had to balance their deeply held desire to keep their families safe with the yearning to secure the freedoms they had never known for their children. It also has a strong enough focus to point out that attitudes had to change from many facets of society, not just in acceptance of desegregation and the acknowledgement of equal rights for all Americans.
Letitia and Martha Ann may be somewhat two-dimensional and the situations in which they find themselves (outside of the one seminal event of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham in May, 1963) may feel somewhat contrived, but the overall effect is very powerful and elegant in its understatement. So often, authors wish to make a very dramatic witness to such times so as to capture our imaginations – and why not? It was a very important time in a process that continues even today, and the stakes were, and continue to be, incredibly high. But we should not forget that the majority of the people who lived through these times, even those at the epicenter like Birmingham, were “regular” people, quietly enduring and enabling the throes of change in order to make life better for their loved ones, without fanfare on the public stage.
On her website, Rosalie T. Turner relates that one of the motivations for writing March With Me was her belief in the need for reconciliation. She writes, “I have seen across the entire country that while people of different races are integrated, they still miss being connected on a deeper level. In order to make that connection a certain measure of reconciliation must occur.” With quite a few of the final pages of the book devoted to the cataclysmic event that brings about an open dialog, exposing the underlying conflict and bringing about the eventual reconciliation of Lettie and Martha Ann, she has indeed responded to that motivation.
March With Me is not so much a call to action as it is a call for introspection, and then living our lives with a fuller understanding, an open attitude, and a search for reconciliation between all peoples. It’s a worthy effort, both during this Black History Month, and every day of the year.