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Check It Out

Courier Article by Maryann Mori
Sunday, October 21, 2007

New, Old Releases Shed Light on Civil Rights Issues

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

The event drew national attention when federal troops intervened on behalf of nine African-American students who attended the all-white school. This year also marks the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such act since Reconstruction, and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was led by Martin Luther King Jr.

The following books for adults and teens shed additional light on civil rights issues.

Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals.

School was anything but typical for Melba, one of the "Little Rock Nine" students chosen to integrate the Arkansas high school in 1957.

On a good day, Melba suffered name calling, spitting and kicking. On most days she endured severe physical attacks - including an attempt to set her on fire.

Why did Melba and the eight other students desire to attend Central High School and endure such treatment? "Because when we thought of alternatives," she wrote, "the only option was living our lives behind the fences of segregation and passing on that legacy to our children."

Melba's example of endurance offers hope for change, forgiveness and a better understanding of the need for integration.

Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation by Elizabeth Jacoway.

Jacoway grew up in Little Rock with family connections - her uncle was school superintendent - to the civil rights controversy.

She now writes about her re-investigation of the events from which she was "cocooned" as a child. Realizing she "had mindlessly participated in and benefited from a racist culture," the author now believes her friends and family members "failed Little Rock and its children."

She interprets the fight over integration as based largely on whites' fear of sexual interaction with blacks. Published earlier this year, Jacoway offers a new perspective on the events of 1957.

A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson.

Don't let this book's format fool you: It's not a children's picture book. It is a beautifully illustrated heroic crown of sonnets.

This poetic form interlinks the 15 sequential sonnets with joining lines. It's a difficult form but an appropriate one to weave the story of Emmett Till, the teen who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 during a visit to Mississippi.

Philippe Lardy's paintings go from "the crime" to "the mourning" to "the lesson" and aptly complement the sonnet. This is the kind of book you finish in silence and ponder for a long time.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

I first read this book many years ago, but the story had a permanent impact on me. A second reading of it is no less powerful.

Griffin, a white journalist, maintained his name and identity but changed his hair style and skin pigmentation in order to understand the life of a black person in the South in 1959.

In an epilogue Griffin writes, "I learned within a very few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment."

Griffin's journal-like report is alarming, and he rightly states that "where racism is practiced, it damages the whole community, not just the victim group."

This book lets the reader "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes as Griffin shares first-hand accounts of the extreme racism he encountered during his research.

Maryann Mori is teen services librarian at Central Library. She can be reached at (812) 428-8229. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.