Friday, February 19, 2010

In Celebration of Black History Month

A few weeks ago, we discussed Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the story of the brave teenage girl who paved the way for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. This week, we focus on another story of young people who brought about sweeping change with one courageous act, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by husband-and-wife team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.

Like the four people who began the sit-in movement, the Pinkneys take a big idea and break it down into its simplest principles. Andrea Davis Pinkney boils down a complex historical narrative into poetic phrases and a recurring refrain. Brian Pinkney’s swirling ink lines and watercolor illustrations convey a feeling of action among four people who are sitting still. The protest consisted of four young African-American men sitting at a counter where they were implicitly told they would not be served. They were not told this in words, but rather by an unspoken understanding that black people were not allowed at the same counter as white people.

It’s difficult for most children today to understand that kind of racism. Today we have a black president. How could segregation have happened so recently in our history! This picture book presents the situation in such a way that six-, seven- and eight-year-olds can have an informed discussion about what life was like for African-American citizens before the civil rights movement.

To put these events in context, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months later, Rosa Parks also refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts began in December of that year. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine—nine black students in Little Rock, Ark.--enrolled in Central High School despite the governor barring their entry; President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to escort the students into the school. And on February 1, 1960—just 50 years ago--David Leinail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, Franklin Eugene McCain, and Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), four students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter and attracted more than 70,000 people to join them in sit-ins across the South. They were putting into practice the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A timeline at the back of the Pinkneys’ book charts these milestones. This is a book that the entire family can open as a way of reflecting on how far we have come as a nation, and as an instrument for sparking a discussion of where we continue to find injustice, and what we still need to do as citizens of the United States and the world.


  1. Jenny, thanks for this thoughtful article. i read it in Birmingham, Alabama where, after a week of terrific school visits, I'm stranded until tomorrow because of snow in New York. I spent this morning at the Civil Rights Institute, watching news footage of some of the gut-wrenching events you describe. As i looked at those TV clips and photos I kept wondering whether the Freedom Riders and others being beaten for demonstrating for voting rights and civil rights just fifty years ago could possibly have imagined that we'd have an African American President in 2009.

  2. Kate, I'm so sorry that you were not able to return home as planned, but what a great use of found time! I, too, have thought about that very thing, that these brave men and women, by acting on their consciences, paved the way for Barack Obama's presidency.