BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Adolescence and Civil Disobedience

Adolescence meets civil disobedience in Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as conveyed to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley (Dial Books, 2015). PJ Loughran’s illustrations illuminate the author’s experience as a young teen in that time of racial tumult.

This memoir of juvenile literature unfolds chronologically. In a work that also appeals to adults, readers embark on a journey within a culture of caring that permeates the author’s tight-knight household and immediate neighborhood.

In some ways, I was reminded of Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, his novel, later a Hollywood studio film, of growing up in Jim Crow Kansas between the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps this creative link between Parks and Blackmon Lowery is due in part to the wonderfully evocative illustrations that begin each chapter of her memoir.

The word “terror” aptly describes what existed outside her circle of family and friends at the George Washington Carver Homes in Selma. This is Alabama in the Jim Crow era. If you were white, step ahead. If you were black, then take a step back.

African Americans who resisted the color line, and those who did not, faced a terror campaign of white violence. The word terror recurs throughout the book, and the passages in which the author writes of fearing and suffering bodily injury is compelling.

Through a young teen’s eyes we come to appreciate how culture, community and family shaped the movement for civil and voting rights of which Blackmon Lowery was an active member. Songs and singing are a force in this memoir, from “We Shall Overcome” to “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”

The sacred strengthens the participants’ resolve to transcend oppression by the white power structure. “Music is something that just stirs a person up,” the author writes. “Back then the songs were emotional tools.”

She began her activism as a “gopher,” the individual who went for what adults in the movement requested. Hers was a vital role, one that shaped her development, and others’.

While marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge leaving Selma, a police officer attacks Blackmon Lowery and scores of other protesters in “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965. She describes that incident with poignancy. Readers are there.

The author’s voice is steady, through the ups and downs of her journey. She, while narrating often harrowing time in and out of jail battling Jim Crow, offers powerful incidents. One that stands out in mind is authorities who mete out solitary confinement as a punishment to teens.

Later, the author misunderstands, at first, the role and purpose of white federal troops while marching to Montgomery to build pressure for blacks’ voting rights. Why? She knew well the behavior of violent whites, the Ku Klux Klan and state troopers. The latter killed blacks such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a deacon and young father and husband, who was part of a nonviolent protest, on Feb. 26, 1965.

“There was a lot to be afraid of,” she writes of marching to Montgomery, describing dogs on the leashes of the federal troops sniffing for bombs, with helicopters above. “But I just kept what my grandmother told me in mind. I knew I couldn’t let fear of those white people take control of me.”

Grandma’s words steeled the author’s spine. That and the energy and vitality of her companions of many backgrounds on that march.

As the movement grows, white allies travel to Alabama to join black marchers, heeding the call from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who appears early in the memoir. Whites in and out of organized religion who backed the black freedom struggle were new to the author, a change that changes her worldview.

She delivers that turning point in a personal portrait of getting to know one white man, a fellow marcher. What his friendship did for her rings out with all the authenticity of a teen becoming aware of the wider society of which she is a part of—not apart from.

Photos from 50 years ago sparkle throughout this memoir. It works around the year, and for Black History and Women’s History months, especially.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based journalist. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2015

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