Exposing children to examples of protest plants the seeds for them to fight for justice
Educating the youngest activist is our responsibility, especially as these incidents come closer to their homes.
By Salaam Green
Protest birthed out of the American south often sets the pace for revolutionary and radical campaigns for justice. While I was teaching creative drama with a group of fourth graders outside of Birmingham, Alabama, a hotbed for civil rights and the home of many justice movements, an eager fourth grader asked me about the Thanksgiving night police shooting of a 21-year-old Black man Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford (E.J.) at the largest mall in Alabama. The Galleria mall is approximately 15 miles from his school in Hoover, and my heart immediately sank at the student’s tragic familiarity to this incident.
I asked the fourth grader what he knew and what he wanted to know. He asked me why were people protesting and if he could someday protest too.
I thought about his question and immediately turned to one of my favorite children’s books, The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson, which tells the true story of a nine-year-old who was arrested for protesting in Birmingham in 1963. Although this is a picture book designed for younger kids, I recognized it would resonate with my fourth-grade art students who lived only miles from both Birmingham and the mall where Bradford’s murder occurred.
During the Children’s March of 1963, many young students left their school with the courage and tenacity to demonstrate against white supremacy and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. These brave youngsters dodged fire hoses and vicious police brutality, in most cases without their parents or adult approval. Young marchers whose names are too many to be released demonstrated for their lives and the collective freedom for Black people in the south and beyond, bringing attention to the volatile nature of the region.
Audrey Faye Hendricks was one of the youngest, and The Youngest Marcher is her story of justice and protest. As I read her book to a very curious class of fourth-grade boys and girls, several children began to point out how the marchers in the book were experiencing mean words from white people which was much like some of the responses to protests they were watching on social media.
Exposing young children to examples of protest and activism plants the seeds for them to fight for justice.
This is why I also told them about the #SayHerName campaign, which came about to bring attention to women and girls who were suffering violence at the hands of the police. This supported the students in coming up with ideas for their own campaigns, one of which was to write letters to families who were grieving and have lost loved ones to violence in the city. I reminded the students that several young children have lost their lives as a result of the hatred in the south in the past.
The silence in the classroom that day was surprising. I reiterated that activists and organizers across the nation could be seen throughout media chanting #SayHerName, protesting just as Hendricks did years ago and even going to jail today for bringing attention to our plight. The students began to construct stories and draw pictures that had activist characters who were heroes and dialogue that mimicked civil protesting. The future of activism is bred with the children of today.
As a small child around my students’ age walking with my family to a drug store in Selma, Alabama in the eighties, I encountered protesters with signs blocking the entrance. My older brother immediately ran to go inside the drugstore. A man holding a sign with big black letters on it chanted, “no shopping here!” This was my first time seeing a live protest, and watching Black ladies in skirts circling the sidewalk and a large dark man guarding the door forever shaped my ideas. My mother politely told my brother to walk away from the door. Enthusiastically walking past the store was her way of participating, of saying, “we are with you and we will not shop here.”
It must have been challenging for my mother who relied on the drug store alongside so many other residents. But as a small child in the middle of the picketing and loud chanting, I felt a sense of community amidst the protestors, and my mother faced her own challenges to teach me a lesson that day — one I can apply as a Black resident of Hoover, Alabama and an art teacher of inquiring Black children today.
There is no level of inconvenience that will remediate the death of someone’s loved one, I told my students. I may not always be the one protesting outside the mall with a sign, but I will use my voice to stand for E.J.’s family and for boycotting shopping at the Galleria.
Suddenly, a brown-eyed student raised his hand and meekly stated that his mother told him that they wouldn’t being going back to the Galleria mall either. At first, he was upset because he was supposed to have his upcoming birthday party at a large popular gaming restaurant that recently opened in the mall. He went on to say that now, even though he was excited about having his party there, he is even more excited about making the choice to have fun somewhere else. “If they hurt someone in the mall I don’t want to be hurt and I want to be a part of the difference,” he said, lowering his hand.
I explained to them the history of our city. I explained that Hoover is where I live, and why I’m not proud of it at this time. I told them how it was founded by a man who didn’t like Black people and wanted to move away from Birmingham after the forced integration of Black children into all-white schools. William Hoover pressed to incorporate the town to keep segregation alive, and white flight quickly spread to the a sparsely populated area of the county.
After my talk, students started discussing taking actions to the local massive Hoover High School. The suburban High School on the outskirts of Birmingham has been known nationally for its award-winning football team, and a 2018 incident where a white teacher came under fire for a racial slur. In contrast to the children’s march, many adults in the town were adamantly against protesting at the school, with both Black and white people stating that this would cause mass disarray. This is Hoover, where legislation on desegregation still to some extent looms currently.
“With 2,000 Hoover City students shifting school zones for the next school year, school officials there have taken the first big step toward ending federal oversight in a 53-year-old desegregation case, Superintendent Kathy Murphy said.” — Trisha Powell Crain, AL.com
Sitting in a circle, locking arms, reading with students that day led me to notice that we were all participating in our very own protest. Educating the youngest activist is all our responsibility, especially as more of these incidents come closer to their homes.
A is for Activist author Innosanto Nagara, who wrote the book for his two-year-old son, compiled a list of other books on teaching activism to young children. “Give kids credit,” says Stan Yogi, one of the authors compiled on Nagara’s list. “They have an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Being able to draw on that innate sense of justice through relatable stories is so important.”
Remember the children are watching. They have always been gathering themselves, wondering, waiting, and willing. The young millennial generation of organizers in the fight for justice and transparency of E.J. Bradford and and for the #SayHerName campaign isn’t new, and is just as monumental as the Children’s March in the 1960’s.
The eyes of God are watching the south again, and out of the mouths of babes shall come prevailing change, through protest, policy, and prolific testimony. Power to the People, and especially the children, as this new generation of activists and organizers evoke their own methods of action alongside the tutelage and modeling of forefathers and foremothers.
Salaam Green is a New Economy Coalition Climate Solutions Fellow and freelance writer/storyteller in Hoover, Alabama. She does environmental and restorative justice work in rural Alabama. She is published in Scalawag, Bust, The Feminist Review, The Southern Women’s Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and more. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, literaryhealingart.com, @salaamgreen1