It’s been 51 years since the groundbreaking marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama took place. The people from that era who are alive and willing to speak on the civil rights movement are literally walking encyclopedias on what it’s like to fight for freedom against the circumstance of adversity. One of those pillars of knowledge and experience is Lynda Blackmon Lowery, recorded as the youngest participant in the Selma marches. She was thirteen to fifteen in her early years of activism and her memoir Turning 15 On The Road to Freedom is a valuable first-hand account. The book arrives as the Ava DuVernay film Selma re-opens our hearts and minds to the battles that civil rights leaders and participants endured and now, the #BlackLivesMatters marches have become the millennial response to laws and the judicial system not responding efficiently or fairly to racially motivated deaths and crimes.
Turning 15 specifically aims at educating and connecting the civil rights to a younger generation. According to Lowery, young marchers have been virtually omitted as heroes from our history books and retrospective discussions. She encapsulates the years of 1963-65 (that lead to the Voting Rights Act in ’65), as a “children’s movement,” adamant that civil rights wouldn’t have happened without them and high school students. Although Turning 15 (named after her 15th birthday that was on March 22, 1965, the third day of the road to Montgomery) was written through her perspective, its message and purpose is on behalf of the children that joined her as freedom fighters. Lowery believes the more young people are aware that having a voice in human rights is possible, they will feel more inspired to lead, than to wait for change to occur.
As a special guest at the New York Historical Society (NYHS) on January 18, Lowery spoke to a culturally diverse audience of curious hildren, youth groups and parents. She was accompanied by her co-authors Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, as their collaboration on Turning 15 was pure kismet. Leacock and Buckley were on the search for a person who was a child or teen during the Selma marches, as a part of their “Journeys for Freedom” project. It was through a chance meeting with a woman who happened to be Lowery’s sister that they had got in contact with the Lynda and her own book was born.
During her Turning 15 talk at NYHS, Lowery’s presence was rife with a calm emotion. Her speaking tone was honeyed and reassuring, as she first began with her earliest memories of Selma, her birthplace, through excerpts from the book:
“[In those days], you were born Black or you were born White. And there was a big difference.”
“Where I lived, everyone was Black. I lived in the GWC [George Washington Carter] homes. The good old projects. My friends and I all felt safe there because everyone watched out for one another.”
Lowery also recaptured seeing the Ku Klux Klan in other Black neighborhoods “hiding their faces under white sheets.” She also recalled her mother’s untimely passing because of the hospital she was taken to was “Whites-only,” her injuries and illness were barely treated by the medical staff. A warmer memory however followed: her grandmother took her to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on voting rights at a local church. Seeing the celebrated orator in 1963 moved Lowery greatly and she said, “The way he sound made you want to do what he was talking about. And he was taking about voting. The right to vote. He was talking about non-violence and persuading people to do things [their] own through steady, loving confrontation. I’ll never forget those words.”
Lowery couldn’t participate in sit-ins at diners and restaurants because of her age, but she was given the task of being a “go-fer,” which was someone who would call for help when danger or violence was a possible outcome of non-violent protests and rallies. She was first thrown into jail at fourteen, uncomfortably packed into a single cell with many other girls, but they all recognized the “power in numbers.” Another jail cell memory was of a harrowing time she and 20 girls were thrown into a sweatbox, an iron room without windows and no air. Every girl at some point passed out as“There was nothing but heat. It was dark too.” By the time she was fifteen, Lowery would be jailed nine times.
Other definitive turning points of Turning 15 was the news of Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death (a member of the marches whose passing invigorated the movement). In fact, his story is a large part of Duvernay’s Selma. Lowery also recalled memories of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. That infamous non-violent march for Selma became a war zone as the all-White troops waiting for the activists at the end of the Edmund Pettus bridge attacked them with rage. Lowery was there and she recounted every vivid detail of the heightened hatred propelled at her:
“When we got to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, going out of town, all I could see was a sea of White people, and that’s when I got nervous. There were White men on foot and on horseback. There were state troopers and deputies. Along the road, there were White people sitting in their cars, waving Confederate flags. All of a sudden, a loud gas was burning my nose and my eyes. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see. It was terrifying. It didn’t know it then, but it was tear gas. The next thing I knew, I felt a man’s hand grab me from behind, pulling me backwards. I heard him say those hateful words. Then I bit the hand that was on the front of my lapel. When he hit me over my eye, he hit me twice. Hard. I was still in a kneeling position. Struggling to get up, when he pushed me forward and hit me again. This time in the back of my head, I staggered up and ran up again n. Right into the tear gas, but that big White man kept on running after me and hitting me. People were screaming, and hollering, and yelling. My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it would burst.”
While Bloody Sunday frightened Lowery, she continued to show up for protests and had already joined the five day march to Montgomery. She experienced some occasional withdrawing, a kind of post-traumatic stress from what had happened on March 7. Yet through the kindness of other freedom fighters, including a White male war veteran, she remembered “If this man is willing to die for me, then I really had to give up the fear of dying for myself. I knew I had to do this. I knew I could do it.” And doing it meant continuing on the road to and where her and hundreds stood in front of the George Wallace administration in the state capital, becoming Alabama’s most colorful, massive, non-violent protest ever for the right to vote.
After Montgomery, she went “back to Selma” and “back to school” as “a different person” and when reading the excerpt how she responded to the Voting Rights Act being passing on August 6, 1965, on stage, she was that 15-year-old girl all over again:
“We had won. My friends and I that had gone to jail so many times had won. Everyone on that march to Montgomery won. We were determined to do something and prove it. If you are determined, you can overcome your fears and then change the world. The Selma movement was a kids movement. We didn’t know it at the time. But we were making history. You have a voice too. And with determination, you can be a history maker, just like me.”
When Lowery looked up, she smiled (as she had throughout her presentation), her faded voice was broken by applause from the audience, a few even stood up. There was a Q&A that followed and through the shy and unassuming tones of the kids who wanted to know more, a boy named Jacob asked what she thought of the film Selma: She said this:
“The movie was a good interpretation of history. I knew when it first came out, and if you’ve seen it, it shows the four little girls in Birmingham being bombed in the church in 1963. That was so real to me, I felt my whole neckline get wet because of the tears were coming that far and that fast. They showed the bridge scene, the Bloody Sunday scene and I had to get up and out of the theater. It was really that intense, and hard to watch. The movie also highlighted some of my heroes which was Mrs. Boynton [played by Lorraine Toussaint]. She was one of the reasons I was on the march. One of the reasons why I was allowed to march from Selma to Montgomery.”
And Mrs. Annie [Lee] Cooper, the [character Oprah Winfrey plays in the film], Mrs. Cooper still to this day, influences me even though she is no longer with us. Oh the movie Selma was very real to me…but it didn’t show me. When I say it didn’t show me, they didn’t show the children of the movement.”
Turning 15 On The Road To Freedom joins the bookcase of Black authors that have expressed the heartbreak and the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement through literature. Before Lowery, there was Melba Patillo Beals‘ Warriors Don’t Cry (she’s one of the courageous Little Rock 9) and Lay Bare The Heart by James Farmer, one of Dr. King’s right-hand men. Lowery’s story takes the stance that young people shouldn’t feel scared or unsure of fighting for civil and human rights, and that whether in 1963 or 2015, young people haven’t just sat back and waited for change. Though she admitted to another child audience member that she believes today we are lacking someone with Dr. King’s sense of leadership, she remains hopeful that someone will be an admirable successor:
“People will follow someone or something they believe in. There are a lot of leaders out here. No one is special that I would just give my life to, like I did to Dr. King at thirteen. I believe that could be because I’ve grown older and I think for myself more rationally. And I have these wonderful daughters and grandchildren, and I hope to stick around a little longer and see. And I have all of these heroes and sheroes, like the ones sitting in front of me and that I know will change things.”