Kid Lit Review of “The Youngest Marcher” by Cynthia Levinson

This book for readers 5 and up is based on the real story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who at age nine was one of 3,000 children arrested and sent to jail in Birmingham, Alabama for marching for civil rights in 1963. Audrey, part of the Children’s March planned by three preachers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ended up spending seven days in jail.

The march was conceived for several reasons, according to the Zinn Education Project. The civil rights movement was looking for ways to energize the campaign, but many adults were reluctant to participate in the protests because they would lose their jobs. Children marching had less to lose. In addition, a march by children (and the inevitable punitive reaction by law enforcement), would “subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality” per Dr. King. As Civil Rights Leader Reverend Virgil Wood later averred:

“Dr. King was severely criticized for allowing the children to be involved, but the children insisted themselves. The children were their own self-initiators of their own freedom. They said, ‘This is our future and we want to help shape it.’”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture offers a synopsis of how the march got underway:

“On May 2, 1963, more than one thousand students skipped classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham, Alabama. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, white commissioner, Bull Connor, directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, being clubbed by police officers, and being attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, and triggered outrage throughout the world.”

Both of Audrey’s parents were very active in the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was often exposed to conversations in her home between her parents and leaders of the movement, including Dr. King and other ministers who orchestrated efforts to rescind segregation laws.

The author points out that Audrey knew all about segregation from her own experiences as well. She had to ride in the back of buses, drink out of separate water fountains, and use the freight elevators in stores. She knew that nicer things “were for white folks.”

So when the children’s march was proposed, Audrey begged her momma to let her go, and her momma finally relented. Her daddy gave her a game to take with her to pass the time in jail. She was not only the youngest protester, but the only one from her school, and she didn’t know anybody else; most of the protestors were teenagers.

She may have been scared and lonely, but when Jim Bevel, one of the organizers, lined her up to march, she stood up straight:

“She was going to break a law and go to jail to help make things right. Clutching a protest sign in one hand and her game in the other, Audrey marched out the door. She stomped and sang, ‘Ain’t gonna le-e-t nobody turn me ‘round, turn me ;round, turn me ‘round.”

Sure enough, Audrey was sentenced to one week in juvenile detention, but it was harder than she thought. She was afraid, hungry, and tired.

She was even interrogated by a group of four older white men. By Audrey’s fifth day, the police announced the jails were too full, and they couldn’t arrest anyone else. After seven days, she was released. Her momma and daddy came and got her, and that night, she had her favorite “hot rolls, baptized in butter” for dinner.

The author tells us that two months later, the City of Birmingham wiped segregation laws off the books. Audrey was finally able to sit in the ice cream shop, inter alia, like everyone else. The author concludes:

“Black and white together, like we belong.”

An Author’s Note, time line, and list of sources end the book, along with the recipe for Audrey’s favorite “Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter.”

The art work by illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton captures the emotions of everyone caught up in the civil rights struggle. She depicts fearful situations, but emphasizes the joy of family and friends, the feeling of righteousness from fighting against injustice, and the happiness of reunion after separation.

The author was able to interview Audrey before she died in 2009:

“Audrey told me that she remained an activist afterward. She volunteered to integrate a high school, enrolling as one of the its first black students. ‘It took a while for whites and blacks to work together,’ she said. “But it was what we fought for.’”

Audrey Faye Hendricks

Evaluation: Talk about an inspiring story! Audrey’s courage and initiative shows us how people of all ages can help make a difference in the struggle against injustice. It also reminds us how much can be accomplished by a community working together and demonstrating in large numbers to achieve a goal. I especially appreciated that the author and illustrator did not sugar-coat negative aspects of what happened, even though it was couched in an overall positive light.

Police arrest unidentified child protesters, Birmingham, A.L., 1963. Courtesy Alabama Public Radio.

And as we know, the struggle for civil rights isn’t over yet, and little girls are still playing a role in the fight, as this viral video of Wynta-Amor Rogers shows:

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017

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