"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Friday, April 6, 2018

Books and musings on slavery, civil rights, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination

April 4, 2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems like an inauspicious day to commemorate but it does give us a chance to look back and reflect, to note the changes and the similarities to our current times. Oddly events in my life and the books I have decided to read in the past three months have seemed to conspire to make sure that I was ready for the day---that I personally was ripe to receive Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message anew.

Starting in late February my husband and I attended a conference at Seattle University called "Search for Meaning" where we sat in on a session with Dr. Rev. William Barber and Taylor Branch. William Barber is a fiery pastor and past president of the North Carolina NAACP. He recently launched Moral Monday events, following in the footsteps of MLK. He wants us to continue the Poor People's Campaign launched right before MLK was assassinated in 1968. Taylor Branch is a historian and author who has written a three-volume set of books about the Civil Rights Movement weighing in at over 2000 pages in length. I purchased and he signed his summary book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which is only 190 pages long. By the end of the session my head was swirling with new facts and a flame was rekindled inside me to do more to fight injustice in our country and world.

The novel I was reading at the time was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Though a fictional book it started from a historical kernel of truth---when Abraham Lincoln's son Willie died of typhoid fever, the President visited the crypt at least twice held his son's dead body. The novel brilliantly goes back and forth from actual historical documents written at the time of Willie's death, and a surreal, fictional account of what the ghosts, all stuck in the cemetery for a variety of reasons, do and say to try to help Willie to move on. Though not directly related to slavery or civil rights, the book does show how Willie's death and Lincoln's agony helped the President develop his empathy and compassion toward any grieving parent, black or white, and crystallized his decision to free all slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation.

Several books later I picked up a middle grade/picture book, Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.
In a rich embroidery of visions, musical cadence, and deep emotion, Andrea and Brian Pinkney convey the final months of Martin Luther King's life -- and of his assassination -- through metaphor, spirituality, and multilayers of meaning. Andrea's stunning poetic requiem, illustrated with Brian's lyrical and colorful artwork, brings a fresh perspective to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life.  And even in his death, he continues to transform and inspire all of us who share his dream.
I was tremendously moved by the poems and the illustrations. I also realized, as I read them, that I knew very little about the last few months of King's life and the circumstances surrounding his death. I was just eleven when he was killed and my family didn't live in the United States at the time, so I didn't see any news coverage of the events. Later, in high school, I opted to take a government rather than a US history class, because of this I have a lot of holes in my own knowledge of US History, including the Civil Rights Movement. Reading this book---about the Sanitation Worker's strike, about King's final speech, about his assassination, about his wife's decision to march in his stead---inspired me to learn more.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. For me it came in the form of the Classic Club Spin event. Participants list twenty classic books, when the number was spun, I looked at my list and saw that it landed on Kindred by Octavia Butler. Butler, known mostly as a Sci-Fi writer, penned Kindred in 1979. The main character, Dana, a black woman married to a white man, time-travels back to 1820s Maryland, where she meets her ancestors---a black slave woman and a white slave-owner man, Rufus Weylin. Over and over she is "called upon" to save Rufus' life and has to time-travel to do it. The problem, of course, is she is black and Maryland is a slave state. Every time she travels back in time, Dana is trapped, for up to several months, as a slave herself. She learns first hand how easy it is to entrap another person and why people submitted to slavery. The book was very disturbing yet also enlightening about the "peculiar institution" of slavery and how the foundations of our country were built on it, a fact we cannot deny, but one we must strive to correct and make amends where we can.  I highly recommend the book.

In addition to participating in the Classics Club spin event, each year my husband and I participate in Pierce Reads! which is a county-wide reading activity every spring. This year the book(s) is the 3-volume graphic biography of/by John Lewis, March I, II, III. Lewis, in case you don't know, is a current member of the US Congress. But before that he served with MLK in many capacities of the Civil Rights Movement and was nearly killed by a beating from a police officer during the March on Selma. He is a true American hero. Last night, as a matter of fact, I heard a portion of a discussion he and Obama had yesterday during a forum with high school students:
“Being on the right side of history isn’t always popular. And it isn’t always easy,” Obama said to Lewis. “You don’t know when things are going to break your way. You don’t know whether your labors will deliver.”
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something. Dr. King inspired us to do just that,” Lewis replied.
I am very inspired by Lewis and having read the three part graphic novels at an earlier date, I can recommend them without any hesitations. Lewis found his way to the Civil Rights Movement through a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr. He decided that he wanted his biography to be in that same format. My husband has just finished March and took book two with him to work today hoping he has time to finish it during lunch time. The title is so perfect since so many of the big events in the Civil Rights Movement involved marching. Martin Luther King said that marching for civil rights was like praying with his feet.

My husband and I decided to "pray with our feet" also, and we marched a few weeks ago in support of the Parkland students' efforts to draw attention to our country's gun problems. During The March for Our Lives my husband and I had time to reflect on how the current guns laws are especially dangerous for people of color in our country. It seems like police are much more likely to shoot first and ask questions later because of a fear of what high-powered weapon might be leveled at them. Sensible gun laws and banning the high-powered assault rifles would make everyone safer, in my opinion, and could have a positive effect in black communities. We need to do whatever we can to protect everyone's civil rights!

A few weeks ago a blogging friend posted a list of YA books published in 2018 which have several starred reviews and have already received critical acclaim.. Martin Rising was on that list as well as two others which piqued my interest: Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Tonya Bolden and Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Killer by James L. Swanson. I added both to my reading list and was surprised at how fast the library had them ready for me to pick up. I started the Douglass book first, for a purely silly reason---it was shorter---but read it with relish. Douglass was a true American hero who decried the twin monsters of darkness---slavery and racism---his whole life. The man was tireless. Once slavery was abolished, he moved on to supporting efforts to secure the vote for African-Americans (men), he supported other worthy causes, too, like women's suffrage, and equal pay for blacks and whites in the same job. In a lot of ways Frederick Douglass was the MLK of the nineteenth century, rallying people to support worthy causes mainly through his speeches and his many publications. The book is very readable and its target audience is young teens.

Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Killer by James L. Swanson, marked with a big J for Junior by my library, did seem to be written for a younger audience. I couldn't believe it when Swanson wrapped up the while Civil Rights Movement in less than 100 pages of the 300 page book, dedicating mere sentences to important events like the March on Selma and the Freedom Riders. But then I readjusted my estimation of the book when Swanson dedicated the next 200 pages to a detailed account of King's assassination, the movements of James Earl Raye days and weeks before the event, and the efforts of the FBI for the two months it took to find him after he escaped from the scene the day of the killing. The book was fascinating. FASCINATING. Full of photographs, maps, and details I have not seen or heard of before about King's final days and the aftermath of his death. Just as I am starting to read excerpts of King's final speech made in Memphis to an assembled crowd of two thousand people, I look up to see the TV news showing footage of the actual event caught on film fifty years ago. Tears sprung to my eyes. It was as if I was living it for the first time. The reading of this book coinciding with the anniversary of King's assassination couldn't have better timed if I had planned it. Written for younger teens I was able to race through the book and consume it in one day. It is also a treasure trove of resources with over 100 pages of references, recommended reading list, time lines, etc.

Crammed in between reading all these inspiring books about American heroes (Lincoln, Douglass, King), the effects of slavery, and the civil rights movement I started an audiobook of Sing, Unburied
Sing about an impoverished black family living in Mississippi in current times. Drugs, racism, poverty, and death plague the family and the effects are seen most clearly on the children. Though, not specifically about the themes of slavery or civil rights, one can clearly see the impact that our history of slavery is continuing to have on everyone in our society, but more specifically on black folks today. I had to stop listening at the one-third mark of the book and hope to return to it in a few weeks. My reading selections were starting to add together with the news I was hearing out of Washington, DC about the actions and words of our seemingly very racist president.and were affecting my moods in a negative way. How can we combat racism if the man at the top perpetuates old myths and stirs up hatred? It is hard not to get discouraged. Yet, I have to remind myself that I can heart from the example given to us by Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, and so many others.

As I started preparations to write this blog post, my mind still swirling with everything I have heard, read, and done in the past few months, I realized that I still wanted more information. I marched over to the book shelf and found The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, where I had placed it, unopened, when we got home from "The Search for Meaning" conference in February. I opened to the introduction and started reading...
"Newer generations will find here the gist of a patriotic struggle in which the  civil rights pioneers, like modern Founders, moved an inherited world of hierarchy and subjugation toward common citizenship Others can recall vivid triumph and tragedy at the heart of national purpose for the United States, whose enduring story is freedom. The unvarnished history should resist fearful tides to diminish that story. Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite hardship, against great odds" (Branch 3).
Just in case you missed it, or want to see if again. Here is the last speech made my Martin Luther King, Jr., the day before he was killed. Many say this was his very best. He gives everything of himself, almost like he pours out every drop of himself, so that after he finishes he collapses into the arms of his friend Ralph Abernathy, completely spent.

I didn't set out in 2018 with a goal to do themed reading on slavery, civil rights, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All of these books just seemed to find their way to me and asked to be considered together as a whole. I am not done searching for meaning and understanding. My hope is that this post will help guide you to do the same.

My reading list:

Bolden, Tonya. Facing Frederick: the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2018.
Branch, Taylor. The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2003.
Lewis, John, et al. March: Book Three. Top Shelf Productions, 2016.
Lewis, John, et al. March: Book Two. Top Shelf Productions, 2014.
Lewis, John, et al. March. Top Shelf Productions, 2013.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis, and J. Brian Pinkney. Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. Scholastic Press, an Imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2018.
Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo: a Novel. Random House, 2017.
Swanson, James L. Chasing King's Killer: the Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin. Scholastic Press, 2018.
Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. Simon & Schuster, 2017.


  1. Wow, you've accomplished a lot of heavy reading--by that I mean heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. I admit that I haven't done as much as I could/should.

    1. No wonder I lobbied for little fare for our next batch of book club selections

  2. I love Kindred. Octavia Butler is so underrated.

  3. Terrific post.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I ended up working on this blog all day yesterday. Even I didn't realize how much the themes I talk about here have shaped my life these past few months.

  4. What a great selection of books! I came to comment on Friday56, but got distracted. lol

  5. Such a great series of books and events! It's all so powerful.

    1. Thank you. I am sure you have similar point of view.

  6. Good choices! I definitely need to try March. :)

    1. Yes, do read March I, II, and III. You like graphic novels, so I know you will enjoy them from that angle, for sure.

  7. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler has been on my to-read list for ages! I was so glad to see the book in this post. And it's great you enjoyed it and recommend it too! Yay. I'm so excited about it tbh.

    Ronnie @ Paradise Found

    1. Yes, it had been on my list for years, too. I was glad to finally get to it.

  8. You've set yourself a worthy reading list. I'd like to read the Taylor Branch one -- I had read his first one in the trilogy long ago -- but The King Years at 190 pages sounds doable & good. I have not read Octavia Butler yet, need to!


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