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In February, during Black History Month, we chose Turning 15 on the Way to Freedom as a “New and Notable” book. Today, on the last day of Women’s History Month, we share more of the story that made us deem Turning 15 a book “on courage.”

Lynda Blackmon Lowery (then Lynda Blackmon) turned 15 on the second day of the 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; she was the youngest marcher to make that journey. “I just knew I was on my way to Montgomery to show Governor George Wallace how he had hurt me,” she declares. Indeed he had hurt her. By her 15th birthday, the second day of the 54-mile march, she found herself suddenly traumatized by all the mayhem she had seen and the brutality she had faced. As she emerged from her sleeping tent, the sight of National Guardsmen holding rifles with fixed bayonets made her scream in terror. She was assured that they were there to help her; still, talking her down from her state of agitation delayed the march for an hour.

No wonder she finally gave in to panic. Before she turned 15 she had been jailed nine times; on one of those lockups she had been put into the dreaded “sweatbox,” an iron room with no windows. “Every one of us passed out from the heat. There was no air. There was no bed. There was no toilet. There was no sink.” But the trigger for her terror on that second day of the march was the beating she had received during the “Bloody Sunday” police riot at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge two weeks before. As she tried, with burning eyes and lungs, to get out of the clouds of tear gas, a “big white man” hit Lynda twice over her eye and once on the back of her head. As she staggered away, he kept hitting her. Her stitches had just been removed before the Montgomery march.

What is striking about Lynda’s story is the modest, matter-of-fact tone she uses to describe the dangerous protests and marches the children of Selma routinely took part in.

“White people could fire black people whenever and however they wanted. That’s why the civil rights leaders needed us children to march. . . . On the day of a march, you would go to school for attendance, then slip out and get down to Brown Chapel. Our teachers were the ones to unlock the back doors and let us out of school. They supported us—they had our backs. . . . Two or three times a day a group of us students would leave Brown Chapel, heading downtown. I don’t think we were ever less than fifty kids on a march.”

After the hard rain of Day Three, “the ground was really soaked. Our campsite that night was really muddy. Someone put down hay and then a plastic tarp over the hay, but I sank down into the mud anyway.” On Day Four, the marchers got to Montgomery. ”When I got to the capital,” Lynda says, “I looked for Governor Wallace in he windows. . . . I got as close as I could and shouted, “I’m here, Governor Wallace! I’m here! So somebody in the governor’s office surely got to see my bandages. Somebody did.”

This has been marketed as a young adult book (for those 12 and up). The story (as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley) is indeed rendered with simplicity, but that’s a virtue; the picture of the nondramatic, everyday bravery of ordinary people that this memoir paints makes it an affecting read for adults as well.

 

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