February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

American Heroes: Four Books Highlight the Fight Against Racism | Nonfiction Booktalker

It doesn’t matter to students whether superheroes are real or fictional. It’s all the same battle as long as they fight injustice. These four books bring the struggle against prejudice and inequality blazingly alive.

Rick Bowers’s Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (National Geographic, 2012) offers a fresh angle in the fight for freedom. After World War II, the Last Son of Krypton quickly took on some new bad guys. Appalled at Hitler’s hatred of “non-Aryans,” Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teens who created the Man of Steel, made their next villain the Hate Mongers Organization, based on the Ku Klux Klan. The bullies who terrorized blacks—and anyone who wasn’t white and Protestant—wore terrifying disguises, just as villains did in superhero comics. Bowers shows the power of a popular cartoon character in changing the attitudes of readers, especially young children.

But a fictitious hero needs back-up from real ones. By the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was catching fire. Cynthia Levinson interviewed several people featured in We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), starting with Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was nine when she told her parents that she wanted to go to jail. Their reaction? Pride and support. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to fill up the city’s prisons to protest desegregation, and kids could do it as easily as grown-ups. Fifty years ago, all Audrey and her friends had to do was walk together or hold a protest sign to end up behind bars.

African Americans in Birmingham, AL, were sick of the shameful way they’d been treated for generations. Larry Dane Brimner’s Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor (Boyds Mill Press, 2011) describes the local minister and civil rights leader who faced a ruthless opponent. Connor, a racist police chief, used attack dogs, beatings, and blasting water hoses against blacks who demanded their Constitutional rights. Reverend Shuttlesworth was imprisoned multiple times. His home was bombed. Miraculously, he and his family escaped unharmed, but he was accused of setting the dynamite himself to get attention. Connor also accused him of being a Communist and told the New York Times “Damn the law—down here we make our own law.” Eventually, Connor’s tactics backfired. Photos of young people being attacked and waterhosed drew national attention. Kids in the overcrowded prisons got noticed, too.

The tipping point came after four young girls were killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, but change didn’t happen overnight. In Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Hours (National Geographic, 2012), Ann Bausum describes an unforgettable time in Memphis, TN, when African American garbage collectors were treated shamefully. Unlike white workers, blacks worked six-day weeks with one 15-minute break a day, and had no access to restrooms. In 1968, two black workers were crushed to death by a garbage truck grinder. Sanitation workers went on strike, and garbage piled up in the streets. Protest marchers carried the iconic signs “I AM A MAN.” Community tension grew, and Civil Rights leaders arrived to help.

Dr. King gave one of his most powerful and famous talks, the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Tell young listeners how Dr. King was assassinated the next day outside his motel room. Bausum’s excellent photos, with their depictions of modern Americans caught up in the conflict made me realize how recently these events happened. And, of course, the struggle continues. Not all superheroes fly or have x-ray vision. Some of them simply stand up for what’s right. Your fourth- to eighth-grade listeners will be inspired by these young fighters.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.