A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King Jr., Young People, and the Movement by Rufus Burrow Jr.
Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014.
Academic non-fiction, 331 pages (including index).
In six chapters, this accessible academic work conveys the history of youth involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, with a special focus on youth interactions with Martin Luther King, Jr.
As soon as I saw this at the library, I had to check it out. Children, MLK, and the Civil Rights movement? All favorite reading topics for me. But when it came to writing this review, I dithered. For
weeks months I have been thinking about this book, rereading sections, and trying to decide if I’ll write about it here. I’m simply not knowledgeable enough in this field to assess the author’s arguments and write what I would think of as a proper review. In the end, I am reviewing it as an interested layperson, since that’s how I read this book.
This is sort of a long review compared to my usual analysis of picture books.
TLDR; Accessible to an interested and determined layperson, you might enjoy it also.
The introduction is written by Michael G. Long. Then the preface is almost a chapter in and of itself, introducing the themes and breaking down the structure of the book as well as giving a lot of background on historical thought about black children, so that the reader can understand why black children’s participation in the civil rights movement was not only pivotal, but also remarkable for the time. The preface also explained why Burrow felt the need to write this book after repeatedly talking to college students who feel they have no obligation to work for civil rights or justice in the world.
The introduction then gives background on MLK and his interaction with youth. Then the first chapter introduces the themes of the book in more detail and talks about youth participation and involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Youth involvement in this area was not as widely known and has been little researched. Burrow also covers what MLK was doing and overall reactions by children and parents to the boycott. This seems like a lot for one chapter, but different areas are broken down into sub-sections, so it is very manageable to read.
Chapter two is about youth involvement in the sit-ins and freedom rides. This chapter focuses mainly on college students and older high school students who were not only participants but in some cases the initiators of passive resistance. This was an area where youth left MLK behind, both figuratively (initiating actions he hadn’t thought of or wasn’t ready for) and literally (he didn’t participate in the freedom rides). This chapter also addresses why MLK didn’t join the freedom rides and the tensions and misunderstandings that caused between MLK and youth leaders.
Chapter three focuses on Birmingham and the controversial Children’s Crusade. One of the main points that stuck with me in this chapter is how young leader James Bevel convinced MLK and some of the other leaders that they should allow elementary school students to join the movement and not set an age limit. At first MLK agreed only to the participation of high school students.
“… Bevel strongly objected. His argument won the day when he reminded King and others in the room that the black Baptist Church had never raised a concern over the fact that many children join church and make a faith commitment at age five or six, and no adult member contests it. Bevel said that the silence of adult members implies their belief that children at this age are old enough to have a sense of knowing what they are doing in this regard. Therefore, Bevel insisted, they should be allowed to live their faith, even to the point of participating in the demonstrations.” p. 109, italics in original
As you might have noticed from this quote, religion plays a large part in this book. Unlike many authors, Burrow doesn’t shy away from the large role that Christianity played in the civil rights movement, both as a motivating power for both children and adults and as a uniting force.
Chapter 4 is about Mississippi. For me, this was the hardest chapter to read. Mississippi saw a lot of just shocking violence against workers trying to initiate even the most basic of civil rights in Mississippi. And the nation only cared when white college students were listed among those killed, or missing. The perpetrators were often the judges and police normally relied upon for protection. This chapter focuses mainly on college students, and talks a great deal about the white students who came down, why their participation was needed but not always welcomed, and the cultural misunderstandings on both sides as well as between North and South. Of course Emmett Till is also part of this chapter, as is MLK.
Selma is the focus of chapter five, and the voting registration movement there. As I was reading this book, I began another (much lighter) non-fiction memoir and was happy to see that it intersected somewhat with this book, but it did distract me some as I was reading this chapter. What really stood out for me in this chapter was the story of Sheyann Webb and her friend Rachel West, due to a happy coincidence I hope to finally post about next week (hint: remember the book missing from my book haul?)
Finally, chapter six looks at civil rights and youth moving forward, particularly what characteristics will be needed for future civil rights movements and what has been learned both from MLK and the youth who worked alongside him. This chapter lagged a bit for me, but that could be because I was reading it as American politics got downright scary, so I wasn’t feeling a lot of hope for the future. It gave a great deal of information and ideals about how to learn from MLK and the youth of the civil rights movement for the movements of the future. Anyone involved with #blacklivesmatter or other modern movements could certainly benefit from reading this chapter.
My favorite quote from this chapter was:
“The first few times an action occurs is voluntary, and thus requires effort or will, and steady attention. Once the action has been repeated a number of times and becomes habit, little to no effort and attention are needed to perform it, much like when one learns to tie her shoes. ” p. 295
The analogy then goes on to convince us to develop our virtues into habits and particularly the habits most needed for civil rights activism and social justice. There definitely was a lot of prescient commentary on American politics, it was just too depressing for me to read based on the timing. This was the only chapter I didn’t reread at all.
This book has added so many new works to my TBR list; not a chapter went by that I didn’t find new things I want to read in the text or in the notes. How long it may take me to get to those, I’m not sure, especially since I want to reread this book for a third time once I get some more background and context.
The format was a huge boon, as were the occasional reminders of where we had seen people before. I wasn’t able to sit down and read the whole book at once, but was still able to follow the arguments as long as I stopped at a chapter or section break. Although this is an academic work, it was written clearly, and the events were organized in an accessible way. There were a lot of characters involved, and Burrow did a good job of laying out the groundwork for who various individuals were and where we might have seen them before.
I really appreciated that the book included white participation. While it did speculate somewhat on aspects such as how children of white supremacists might have been affected by the civil rights movement, it also included quite a bit of information about white participants (mostly Northern college students). I felt Burrow was quite gracious in his discussion of white people and often generous in attributing their motivation. He also discusses the problems inherent in interracial participation in movements and why it is so crucial both across various minority groups and the participation of white allies.
One big takeaway that was repeated was that more research needs to be done in this area (children in the civil rights movement). We only have solid documentation of a few cases but there are known to be many more. This area needs a lot more research and awareness.
This book stayed very focused on the intersection of MLK, youth, and the civil rights movement. If you have an opportunity to read it, I would do so.
Overall, I’m glad that I picked this up at the library. If you have any interest in the topic, anyone could learn a lot from this book, even if they don’t know much about the civil rights movement beyond the bare facts of MLK, Jr.’s life.
If you are interested in this book, you can read the Forward, Preface, Introduction, and Chapter One at the publisher’s website (a generous 92 pages or nearly a fourth of the book). They also have links to some reviews I am looking forward to reading now that mine is finally done!