Q & A with Rich and Sandra Neil Wallace, Authors of The Teachers March!

Called "an alarmingly relevant book that mirrors current events” by Kirkus Reviews in a starred review, The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History demonstrates the power of protest and standing up for a just cause, and is an exciting tribute to the educators who participated in the 1965 Selma Teachers' March.

 




Called "an alarmingly relevant book that mirrors current events” by Kirkus Reviews in a starred review, The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane) was written by noted authors and journalists Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace, and illustrated by artist Charly Palmer. This nonfiction picture book demonstrates the power of protest and standing up for a just cause, and is an exciting tribute to the educators who participated in the 1965 Selma Teachers' March. Here, the Wallaces reveal the story behind the book and their research process in this informative Q & A.

Talk about the idea behind The Teachers March! How did you learn about this story?

We were in Selma, Alabama, for our book Blood Brother, about voting rights ally and martyr Jonathan Daniels. While conversing with Joyce Parrish O’Neal, historian and tour coordinator at Brown Chapel, she mentioned that the voting rights protests really got started months before the march from Selma to Montgomery. She explained that more than 100 Black teachers risked their jobs and their lives by walking out of school and marching to the courthouse to demand their right to vote.

We couldn’t believe we’d never heard of the march. We asked Joyce, “Do you know of any teachers who participated?” She nodded and said, “My mother.” And we all started to cry. Joyce was 15 years old when her mother, a single mom, marched. She told us she hadn’t really talked about what it had been like for her—the fear she felt—until then. With her permission, we knew both Joyce and her mother had to be an integral part of the story.

So now we needed to work backward, in a way, to confirm the historical magnitude of the event. We found it in a New York Times article about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Brown Chapel, a few hours after the march, where he praised the teachers and announced that it was “the first time in the history of the movement” that Black professionals had marched as an organized group. It was exactly what we needed.

As journalists, was your approach to this book different than the way you've approached your previous titles?

There had been less written about this event compared to some of our other projects, so the base of material was spare. Even though the march was a turning point in the voting rights movement, it had been overshadowed by events like Bloody Sunday (when John Lewis was beaten while leading marchers across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge) and the successful Selma-to-Montgomery march. The few articles in the local press at the time were overtly racist and portrayed the teachers as troublemakers. That made our own interviews even more essential—recording what we call “the urgency of oral history.” We made several trips to Selma, walked the route of the march, and spent hours talking with Reverend F.D. Reese—who organized the march—and other participants.

You were able to interview Reverend Reese before his passing in 2018. How was speaking with him important to the creation of this book?

There were unconfirmed and conflicting details surrounding the march, so interviewing Reverend Reese was a critical opportunity. Through those interviews we determined how he came up with the idea, Dr. King’s role of inspiration, and most importantly, how the day unfolded—in his words. This not only provided factual and sensory information but amplified the emotion and courage of the moment, grounding us in the time period, the danger, and the magnitude of the march.

Advance reviewers of the book have praised Charly Palmer's illustrations for their detail and emotion. How does his artwork enhance the story?

Charly has been an activist for a long time—using his brush to speak truth to power, to chronicle protest, and as a form of resistance and creating change. He conveys the propulsion of intention and action; he portrays the teachers not backing down from their right to vote; and he juxtaposes their dignity and determination against the brutal force of white supremacy.

Certain scenes are iconic: the teachers preparing to march with their toothbrushes held high, for example—knowing they’d need them in jail along with the sandwiches they’d packed. The toothbrushes symbolize the teachers’ willingness to be arrested for defending their constitutional right to vote—carrying things they’d need for spending time in jail. That sent a strong message to everyone who saw them march and to law enforcement that confronted them at the courthouse.

How does The Teachers March! relate to what's happening in the United States these days?

This story can be a conduit to discussions on racism, resistance, and how Black teachers in Selma protested peacefully to hold democracy accountable. And it provides context for what’s happening in America right now. Change doesn’t happen when there is one leader; it happens when community members demand that laws be changed to uphold freedom for everybody.

We fail our kids by not being honest in the classroom, and not telling them about the ugly history of racism, and also the resistance to it. Black people have been standing up to subjugation for centuries. Telling their stories leads to empowerment and guidance as to how young people can succeed in creating change. And the classroom is the perfect place to have these discussions and learn how real people stood up to segregation and to injustice, how they protested peacefully and created seismic change. We all can do this. And that’s important to know.


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