Growing Reader

Tween

Teen

Knowing Our History to Build a Brighter Future: Books to Help Kids Understand the Fight for Racial Equality

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law on August 6, 1965. By signing this legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson brought the authority of the federal government behind the battle to remove state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of Black American citizens. The murders of civil rights activists in Philadelphia and Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Alabama (recently depicted in the film “Selma”) brought national attention that prompted the passage of the law, but many had been fighting for centuries to bring about this change.

Most of us know the “big” names and symbols of the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, images of horrific violence, thousands of all races marching to the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, we seem to know little else. In its report, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) notes that “Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.”

Here are some resources to help us move beyond tokens and icons to a deeper understanding of our history and its legacy, toward our own marches for liberty and justice for all.

  • Picture Books

  • The Other Side

    by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

    Woodson, whose just-about-every-award-winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming belongs on every reading list in the world, brings us two girls who don’t let a fence stop them from being friends. This seemingly simple friendship story is a powerful and lyrical tale of segregation, seeing humanity in all, and reaching out across boundaries.

  • We March

    by Shane W. Evans

    Evans packs a magnificent punch with few words and bold, compelling art in this account of the 250,000 peaceful protesters at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, primarily noted as the march where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Suggested activities for this book and more of Evans’s work can be found at School Library Journal.

  • Separate Is Never Equal

    by Duncan Tonatiuh

    One way to demonstrate the universality of the struggle for civil rights is to introduce readers to Sylvia Mendez, whose story is told here. Almost a decade before Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez, an American girl of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, helped to end school segregation in California. Mendez and her family brought a lawsuit against a “Whites Only” school that denied her enrollment in spite of her command of spoken and written English, and in 1947, schools across the state were desegregated.

    (*Note: Sylvia Mendez’s story is also featured in the middle grade novel Sylvia and Aki, Winifred Conkling’s fictional account of the intersecting narratives of Sylvia and a real-life young Japanese counterpart, Aki Munemitsu, whose family is sent to a Japanese internment camp.)

  • Lillian’s Right to Vote

    by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

    Written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lillian's Right to Vote tells the story of "a very old woman" named Lillian, who at 100-years-old has seen a great many chapters in American history. As Lillian makes her way up a very steep hill on Voting Day, she is reminded of the enormous uphill battle faced by African Americans in the struggle for voting rights. Through Jonah Winter's poignant prose and Shane W. Evans's expressive illustrations, a new generation of young readers will learn about the long journey — from slavery to segregation, from poll taxes to protests and finally, legislation — to the ballot box.

  • Tween

  • One Crazy Summer

    by Rita Williams-Garcia

    One of my all-time favorites — I adore this book. Williams-Garcia masterfully manages to tell a story about three sisters in 1968 Oakland, California that is heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately luminous. Eleven-year-old Delphine has been like a mother to her two younger sisters ever since their mother Cecile left them in Brooklyn with their grandmother. Expecting Disneyland and Tinkerbell in California, Delphine and her sisters instead discover a complicated mother and the Black Panthers’ day camp. This vibrant and moving award-winning novel has heart to spare. A Teaching Guide is available from the publisher.

  • We’ve Got a Job

    by Cynthia Levinson

    We all need to read this thorough and thoroughly engrossing account on the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, recommended for ages “10 - 99”. Levinson makes the little-known story of 4,000 children who fought to desegregate one of the most notoriously violent cities in America personal, helping readers see through the eyes of four young protesters. For additional information, check out Alabama Public Radio’s audio documentary on the Children’s March.

  • Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

    by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

    This gorgeously illustrated collection of short biographies illuminates the lives of women like Ella Josephine Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Dorothy Irene Height. Each sentence shines with personality, and by connecting the life and work of women like Harriet Tubman to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to seek nomination to the office of President of the United States, Davis Pinkney helps us appreciate their extraordinary accomplishments in arts, literature, politics, education, and athletics across many eras.

  • Teen

  • March: Book One

    by Congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

    My daughter saw Rep. Lewis speak not too long ago, and the power of his words left a lasting impression — she devoured this book that same night. This gripping, award-winning graphic novel poignantly captures the strength of his memories, from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son to his participation in the movement and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Rep. Lewis tells a tale of courage and perseverance that never seems didactic or forced. He continues the story in March: Book Two, and a Teacher’s Guide is available for free download from the publisher.

  • The Rock and the River

    by Kekla Magoon

    Magoon’s novel takes place three years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and offers an authentic portrait of life as a Black teen as the civil rights struggle continued. When 13-year-old Sam witnesses the brutal police beating of a friend, he begins to question the nonviolent philosophy of his activist father, and explores the revolutionary viewpoint of his older brother, who has joined the Black Panthers. Magoon’s exploration of the political education and community-oriented work of the Panthers is notable. There are no easy answers in this complex and well-rounded tale of a strong family working in various ways to fight oppression.

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi

    by Anne Moody

    This was one of the first memoirs of the movement that I read as a child, and I’ve saved that same copy for my own child. Moody, who died earlier this year at age 74, shares in vivid and painful detail the aggressions that Blacks in the Jim Crow era faced each day. Moody went on to college and activism, working with various civil rights organizations. She was part of the history-making group of students who sat-in and prayed at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1963, while whites poured mustard and ketchup over their heads and used physical violence against them. Senator Edward M. Kennedy wrote in The New York Times, “Anne Moody’s powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.”

  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

    by Phillip Hoose

    Few have heard of Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger almost a year before Rosa Parks did the same. Teens will connect with this brave 15-year-old’s story of perseverance as she fights to be taken seriously by classmates and community leaders. In this National Book Award and Newbery Honor winner, Hoose paints a full-bodied portrait of one girl’s life amidst a larger struggle. On National Public Radio’s “Radio Diaries” podcast listeners can hear Colvin herself tell her story.

“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down,” says Annie in The Other Side. This is American history. All of our children should know what happened, why, and what it means in our lives today. And by making these and other stories of the battle for justice a part of our lives, we will continue to knock down fences and build brighter futures.

Comments
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  • Jody Tutt

    Thank you for this list. I hope to see more lists like them in the future. I’m a single mom raising two mixed children and am always on the look out for books to help them embrace their African American heritage/history.

  • Enedina St Sebastian

    This is a great list BUT African Americans aren’t the only group that are fighting for racial equality. As a kid I read a lot of these books too because there wasn’t much if any to choose from when you’re a latino. There’s a lot for my son to choose from(now) but as a kid I remember coming to the conclusion that since I wasn’t white, I must be black by default. At least if I wanted to read about being another race.