In November I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Because They Marched: The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America – one of the best written non-fiction children’s books I’ve ever read. It is the story of the infamous 1965 voting marches from Selma to Montgomery, AL led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Veteran children’s book author Russell Freedman not only knows how to hook readers, but he writes in such a way that they feel as though they are right there in the action. His talent to speak to a younger audience about a very sophisticated subject in such an understandable and fascinating way left me eager to ask him some questions about his outstanding work.
What inspired you to transition from a journalist to a children’s book author?
Some authors may know from the beginning that they want to write for children, but I’ve found that many of us come to this field after serving a writing apprenticeship elsewhere—after a period of experimentation and practice. You have to find your voice.
” I hadn’t expected to become a writer of factual books for young readers, but there I was. I had wandered into the field by chance, and I felt right at home. I couldn’t wait to get started on my next book. I had found my calling, and I never looked back.”
As a young man, I worked as an editor and reporter at the Associated Press. One morning I read a newspaper story about a sixteen-year-old boy who was blind. He had invented a Braille typewriter. That seemed remarkable, but as I read on I learned that another sixteen-year-old boy who was blind—Louis Braille—invented the Braille system itself as used today all over the world. That New York Times story inspired my first book, a collection of short biographies entitled Teenagers Who Made History, published in 1961 by Holiday House. The book received a starred review from School Library Journal and stayed in print for many years.
I hadn’t expected to become a writer of factual books for young readers, but there I was. I had wandered into the field by chance, and I felt right at home. I couldn’t wait to get started on my next book. I had found my calling, and I never looked back.
You certainly did indeed find your calling! I’ve read that you prefer being referred to as a “factual” author rather than a non-fiction author. Can you explain why?
Nonfiction is a negative term. It tells what a book is not. I prefer more informative and inviting terms such as history, biography, memoir, science, or even, factual.
I’ve often thought about how that term is so negative too. You are equally known for the photographs in your books as you are for your writing. What is the process you go through to obtain such outstanding images for your books?
Images are an essential part of my books. I do my own picture research, select the images I want to include, and present them as a package to my editor and book designer, with whom I work closely. Each image is keyed to a specific section of the text. Ideally, that image should appear on the same double-page spread as its textual reference, so the reader’s eyes can move back and forth between the words and images. I also write the captions for those images.
Correlating the text to the images is a really important detail that is so often overlooked, and I suppose it takes a great deal of time to find and choose the right photos for the text.
Not long ago, picture research meant traveling to libraries, museums, and historical societies all over the country, putting your white-gloved hands in the files as you examined fading photographs and fragile transparencies. I often spent days at a time in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room of the Library of Congress, which later became one of the first institutions to digitize its picture collection. Today, most major collections are substantially digitized, and a researcher can access and order reproduction images from sources all over the world without leaving the computer.
For Because They Marched, I looked at hundreds of images on the websites of the Library of Congress, the Associated Press, and various photo agencies. My guiding principle, as always, was that the photos should reveal something that the text cannot express, while the text should say something that isn’t evident in the photos.
“I follow the rule I learned at the Associated Press: have at least three sources for each assertion. When I encounter different versions of the same event, or a lack of evidence, I suggest as much in my text.”
How do you handle the conflicting factual information you find to ensure your facts are accurate when writing a book?
I follow the rule I learned at the Associated Press: have at least three sources for each assertion. When I encounter different versions of the same event, or a lack of evidence, I suggest as much in my text. In Because They Marched, for example, why did the streetlights suddenly go out during the demonstration in Marion, Alabama, at which Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot, and what happened next? I wrote: “At that point, the street lights were either turned off or perhaps shot out. Troopers waded into the crowd, swinging their nightsticks as people trying to get away screamed and stumbled over one another. A crowd of white vigilantes attacked the reporters and smashed their cameras. No photographic record of the night survives.”
When I was writing my biography of Abraham Lincoln I came across the following anecdote: In 1862, while Lincoln was president, his 11-year-old son Willie died of a fever. Willie was the second son to be taken from the Lincolns. Mary was overcome by grief, and the president plunged into the deepest gloom he had ever known. Again and again, he shut himself in his room to weep alone. He was heard to say about Willie, “He was too good for this earth. It is hard, hard to have him die.”
© Copyright – Image courtesy of Russell Freedman
Now all of that is in my book. In early drafts, I had also written that Lincoln twice had his son’s body exhumed, so he could gaze on Willie’s face again. I felt that the harrowing image of the grieving president looking into his son’s coffin was a powerful and unforgettable representation of Lincoln’s profound sorrow. And I thought it said something about Lincoln that could be expressed only by example.
And yet something about the story made me uneasy. My only source was a single biography published during the 1930s, and I felt I needed at least one additional source, and preferably more, for confirmation. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to drop the incident from my book. But the image still haunts me and I still wonder if it’s true.
© Copyright – Image courtesy of Russell Freedman
The way you conveyed details of specific events in Because They Marched made me, as a reader, feel as though I were right there in the action. Is this something you set out to do in your writing?
Isn’t the goal of narrative history to immerse the reader in a certain time and place, to engage the reader as part of the action? I always imagine that I am an eye-witness to the events I’m describing. I try to bring those events to life on the page by focusing on specific, concrete details the reader can visualize, and on documented quotations—what people said or heard others say—which in factual writing take the place of dialogue in fiction. For Because They Marched I was able to draw on eye-witness, day-by-day press reports, and on interviews conducted over the years with dozens of marchers and demonstrators whose testimonies even decades later speak eloquently of the passions of the time.
“I write for myself and for other kids just like me. I write for Miss Tennessee Kent, the 5th-grade teacher who once encouraged me. And I write for my grown-up friends. If a book isn’t good enough for them, it isn’t good enough for kids, either.”
I so admire the way your writing inspires children to obtain the facts, think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. How do you manage to write on sophisticated, sensitive subjects like the voting marches without being preachy and without talking down to readers?
I’m often asked what age level I write for. To begin with, when I sit down at my writing desk, the reader looking over my shoulder is me. As Usrsula Nordstrom famously said, “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” Anyone who writes for kids, whether fiction or nonfiction, is writing for the kid that still resides within that author. I write for myself and for other kids just like me. I write for Miss Tennessee Kent, the 5th-grade teacher who once encouraged me. And I write for my grown-up friends. If a book isn’t good enough for them, it isn’t good enough for kids, either. My books are aimed at anyone who can read at that level—all the way up to senility.
During that lengthy research process, were there any particular facts you uncovered about the march that truly surprised you?
When I first decided to write this book, I did not know that the Selma voting rights campaign originated with teenagers—high school and junior high students organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Their courageous demonstrations and sit-ins in the face of harsh police repression persuaded their parents and teachers to overcome their fears of retribution and join the fight. That was a welcome surprise that helped me frame my narrative with my core audience in mind.
On Bloody Sunday, who ordered the police to use tear gas and violence, and do you know if any children were injured that day?
According to Charles Fager’s, Selma 1965, Governor Wallace’s plan for stopping the march was presented at a meeting with Colonel Al Lingo: “Wallace’s scenario for stopping the march was laid out: its details are unclear (my emphasis) but there is every indication that he intended it to be carried out as peacefully as could be expected from the troopers.” (Fager p. 86) Wallace’s aides assured Mayor Smitherman that there would be no violence. However, public safety director Wilson Baker suspected that Lingo and Sheriff Jim Clark had plans of their own and that state troopers would turn the march into a bloodbath.
As the marchers approached, the troopers slipped gas masks over their faces. Some witnesses recalled seeing Sheriff Clark fingering a tear-gas canister while pacing up and down near the front lines. According to David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, the troopers had been instructed “that tear gas would be used if the marchers refused to disperse.” (p. 398) It isn’t clear who issued those instructions, or who, if anyone, actually gave the order to use tear gas. As in so many similar situations, the first canister of tear gas may have been fired spontaneously as the troopers broke ranks and charged into the crowd of marchers. I chose to describe the confrontation from the point of view of the marchers, as they experienced it, and from the eyewitness accounts of the reporters.
Image of civil rights marchers in Selma on Bloody Sunday from the Library of Congress
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a crowd on March 9, 1965, “Turnaround Tuesday” when marchers were instructed to follow a court order after “Bloody Sunday” to stop their march to Montgomery in fear of more violence. Image in the Public Domain.
I am quite fascinated by the events of Turnaround Tuesday and how Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed with the official from the Justice Department to limit the second march that day – up to the point of the bridge. Why do you suppose he chose not to tell the crowd first about the plan? I imagine the marchers were surprised, confused and disappointed when asked to turnaround.
If King had told the marchers ahead of time that he intended to turn them around after crossing the bridge, he might have been confronted with an angry rebellion. By waiting until they reached the troopers, then asking the marchers to kneel and pray, then unexpectedly wheeling around and starting back, he was able to defuse the situation on the spot and maintain control. I discuss his reasons for agreeing to the compromise on p. 51 of my book.
March 9, 1965 image of police turning marchers around on Turnaround Tuesday in the Public Domain
I was delighted that you included information in your Epilogue about the 2013 Supreme Court decision to release nine states from seeking federal approval before changing their election laws. Can you give our readers some examples of how this decision might adversely affect voting rights today?
The Supreme Court decision has already affected the vote in the 2014 Midterm Elections. Voter ID laws, enacted along partisan lines, discourage or disenfranchise vulnerable segments of the voting population—the elderly, the poor, and minorities. Obtaining a photo ID can, for some, be burdensome and expensive. Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared the laws to a poll tax. According to one study, twenty-one million eligible voters in the U.S. do not have a government-issued photo ID.
“As they cheer the Selma marchers on page after page, I hope they will feel inspired to take up the banner themselves, to meet the challenges of their own generation and march out to change the world.”
Those are alarming statistics. What do you hope children take away most from reading Because They Marched?
I want my readers to understand why the voting rights campaign was necessary, how our country has changed as a result of the Voting Rights Act, and what they can do to safeguard our most precious right—the right to vote. As they cheer the Selma marchers on page after page, I hope they will feel inspired to take up the banner themselves, to meet the challenges of their own generation and march out to change the world.
If it were possible for you to ask MLK, Jr. a question, what would it be?
I might ask, what are the three most influential books you have ever read—not counting the Bible?
What writing project is next for you?
I’m just finishing a book about the White Rose student anti-Nazi resistance movement at Munich University during World War II. When I visited Munich University a few months ago, I was deeply moved by the memorial made of ceramic tiles depicting White Rose leaflets that appear to have been dropped onto the cobblestone pavement at the university entrance. At the moment, I’m starting a book about America’s Vietnam War.
Russell, thanks so much for answering my questions and enlightening our readers. Your outstanding book has educated me with fascinating details I would never have otherwise known. Surely there are many children who will be inspired to take a stand for what they believe in after reading Because They Marched and perhaps even be motivated to become writers some day too. I so look forward to reading your next book and all that come after that.
Readers, you can buy Because They Marched here.