Author Elizabeth Partridge's Address to JACBA on Oct. 15, 2010
Editor’s note: the following address was delivered at the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards in New York by author Elizabeth Partridge on Oct. 15, 2010.
Thank you to the members of Jane Addams Peace Association, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Addams committee members. I am incredibly, deeply honored to be given this award.
Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary is not a solo achievement. I work with the most amazing group at Viking: my editor, Catherine Frank, publisher Regina Hayes, copyeditor Janet Pascal, and designer Jim Hoover. My thanks to all of them for their encouragement and hard work.
Several years ago I was browsing around online and bumped into photographs of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march by photographer Matt Herron. I wanted them. This is what I call photo lust, and when it strikes me, it strikes hard. I immediately emailed Matt to ask if he wanted to do a book with me, after warning him, of course, that children’s books are love projects, not huge income earners. To my delight, he was interested. He turned out to live about half an hour away from me, and gave me full access to his archive. Which was a dusty room crammed full of old filing cabinets. Not exactly a white cotton glove, hushed-voice kind of place, which was fine by me.
I also found online the work of John Phillips, in Toronto. He’s another of these scratchy, cranky, delightful, dedicated civil rights photographers. He ended up scanning in all his proof sheets for me to look through.
As I looked through all the photos, I realized there were lots of kids and young adults in the protests, which puzzled me at first. Then I read a few archived articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, where the reporters had interviewed and quoted kids, by name.
Lightning struck. I realized I could probably find a couple of these people and interview them. I love primary source interviews as much as I love photographs.
With the Internet, phone and a lot of perseverance, I found five or six people who’d been involved in the protests. In November 2008, I flew to Selma.
The people I interviewed – now in their late 50s and early 60s -- remembered events with crystal clarity. Their stories were terrifying, and inspiring. They were too young to vote. But they had the courage to stand up for what they believed in, for what they knew was right, despite being humiliated, beaten, and repeatedly jailed.
Bobby Simmons – the young man on the cover with VOTE written across his forehead – was among the first group of marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday. State troopers attacked with tear gas and billy clubs. He told me how he ran forward and dodged through the troopers, and was caught in a cloud of tear gas in front of several small businesses.
“People were laying out, bleeding, coughing, crying,” he said. “We were pure defenseless.” That’s one of the most eloquent, descriptive phrases in the world. “Pure defenseless.”
By chance, my visit to Selma included Election Night, when we had no idea how the election was going to turn out. After dark, I joined a silent memorial candlelight vigil across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There was just the shushing sound of our feet, and the murmuring water far below. Hand-held candles bobbed gently in the darkness as we walked over the bridge to the site of Bloody Sunday. 96-year-old Amelia Boynton, who’d been badly beaten there, moved to the center of the crowd. Her voice was soft, and as she spoke, we drew in closer and closer to hear her.
It was hushed, reverential. All around me, faces glowed in the candlelight. Suddenly somebody called out, “Obama’s taken Pennsylvania,” and then we knew he would win the election. People burst out cheering and yelling and crying.
As I finished my research and worked on rough drafts, Obama became president. I was excited, and thought civil rights would be moved further along. What I – like so many others – didn’t anticipate, was the counter slam that came in like a tidal wave. By the time Marching for Freedom came out, it was apparent that a frightening backlash had been galvanized by having an African American president.
Since Obama’s election, there has been a steady rise in hate crimes, and memberships in hate groups are now at record levels.
While Marching for Freedom is clearly a book about civil rights, it’s fundamentally about democracy, with its cornerstone of the right to vote. And in our robust, paradoxically fragile, perpetually-challenged democracy, it’s never been more clear that we need to look out for one another, and protect those who are vulnerable.
This is a tough world. How do we keep our hearts from breaking in a way we fear we can never mend? How do we acknowledge the terrifying darkness in the world and yet not give in to despair and grief? How do we honor people who have stood up against tremendous odds, against belief systems, against contradiction and confusion?
I do it by writing books. Books about courageous people. People who dare to believe change is possible, and are willing to work hard to make it happen.
And I’m heartened. We have a record-breaking number of kids and young adults across the United States putting their passion and time into a wide range of volunteer activities and community service.
While I write about the past and how it’s made us who we are today, it’s the future we can change, and these young people are doing it. They fill me with hope.
On behalf of the young people in Selma, Alabama who dared to march and the photographers who recorded their commitment, I thank you for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.