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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood. Volume II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

No Black Agency on the Back Seat: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

Claude Julien


No back agency on the back seat: the Watsons go to Birmingham-1963.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 is a highly popular 1995 novel involving a lower middle class black family of five. The father, Daniel, is a factory worker in the automobile industry. Wilona, the mother, is a homemaker who moved up from Birmingham as a young bride. Of the three siblings, Byron is about 14, Joetta, the last born, is about 7 and Kenneth, the narrator is about 10.
Byron is a troublesome child and the parents decide to drive down to Birmingham to have his disciplinarian grandmother teach him the realities of black life in the United States.
The novel is full of humor, especially as Daniel is a nononsense black man while Wilona romanticizes the “down home” of her youth.
The overnight drive from Michigan (a challenge Daniel imposes upon himself) is smooth and the family reunion after 10 years is pleasant —although Wilona fails to approve of her widowed mother’s decision to live with a companion.
Nice Kenneth is the one who gets out of line and bathes in a dangerous place, only to be rescued by Byron at the last minute. The trauma of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church concludes the novel, and the family drive home to protect Joetta from the horror of it all.
The essay takes issue with the novel for its silence about the events of the spring of 1963. Apart from the heinous bombing, the book’s overall vision of the racist South is bland. Here is a story written for children which fails to instruct. The “children’s crusade” was a very special movement of the civil rights campaign involving thousands of young protesters who marched, braved police dogs, billy clubs, water cannons, and went to jail because they believed in promises of fairness and equality. Black agency deserves better than the novel’s representation of the past. Racial fairness remains a promise even today, but whatever progress has been made did not come easily.

Texte intégral

  • 1 All references given between square brackets are to the 2004 Thomdike Press edition. All occurrenc (...)

1Going on the internet to look for fresh historical material on the children’s marches (frequently called “the children’s crusade”) that took place during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, a 1995 juvenile novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—19631, kept recurring along with study guides published in book form or on-line comments. The insistent screen awakened my curiosity and I placed orders.

  • 2 The three study guides available on the market first came out in 2002 and 2003. Online sites such (...)

2The aim of the coming essay is to study the fictional representation of a major turning point of the civil rights campaign three decades or so later, as well as the proposed pedagogical use of literature for the benefit of American grade school readers. Hopefully, the essay will open windows on what the novel and the study guides reveal about turn-of-the-century2 views and racial politics.

  • 3 Robert Chambliss’s role and friendly complicity with Bull Connor’s police started in the second ha (...)
  • 4 To my knowledge, there exists only one novel reminding potential readers of the Birmingham protest (...)

3As the essay’s title suggests, we are facing a consensual erasure of the magnitude of the 1963 campaign in so far as the events of the spring of 1963 that possibly designated the 16th Street Baptist church for a target are hidden from view. The realities of racist oppression, prominently among them institutional3 police violence, make way for the isolated expression of hate a handful of racial bigots carried out. Perhaps, to use a metaphor in keeping with the traveling from Michigan to Alabama, TWGTB takes the easy road. At any rate, apart from Diane McWhorter’s monumental Carry Me Home, a direct antidote which also investigates the mechanics of the local segregationist camp —the city’s power structure and its hatchet men— the paucity of recent historical research on the 1963 campaign duplicates the impression arising from the fiction and the study guides: that national attention (and recollection) has comfortably shifted away from the merit of the young protesters of 1963 to the belief that, as if by miracle, an unacceptable evil has been purged to give rise to better days4. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Still, the novel’s phenomenal success suggests this book fulfills a broad expectation, or speaks to a national state of mind. In 1996, the novel was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, won the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award and was on the New York Times’s list of the top 100 books for the year. All in all, it has been nominated on no less that 18 states’ award lists over the years. Curtis won the 2002 Newberry Honor for his second novel (Bud, Not Buddy) and is now a full time author.


4Life at home takes up about two thirds of the novel, so we will first meet the protagonists in their environment. The Watsons are a lower middle class family that live in Flint, Mi.

  • 5 Curtis’s father was a physician. But he could not support his family with his medical practice, an (...)

5Daniel is the father. He is a factory worker in the automobile industry5: the narrator, tongue in cheek informs the reader that, as a member of the UAW, his father likes the principle of seniority [170]—and applies it at home. The mother is Wilona. She is a homemaker. Flint is not her hometown.

6There are three siblings. Byron, (“By”), is about fourteen. Kenneth, (“Kenny”), is about ten. Joetta (“Joey”), the boys’younger sister must be about six or seven. She has a strong personality, although she lacks the sense of humor her brothers have inherited from their father.

7Kenneth is the narrator. He has a lazy eye that makes him the butt of many a joke at school. A smart student, he is quite mature and has a soundly detached outlook on life: on others as well as on himself because he is able to look at himself critically.

8Sibling rivalry of course pits Kenneth against Byron at home and in the outside world where the elder Watson likes to lord it over his brother.

9At school, there are false and true friends, bullies and victims, petty thieving such as when Larry Dunn steals Kenny’s leather gloves rather than wear socks on his hands to keep warm in winter. Friendship and solidarity are fragile, intolerance for outsiders and weaker protagonists is constantly around the corner: Rufus Frye and his brother who have newly arrived from the South, and are poor, are ostracized; and Byron boxes Larry Dunn into a snow drift for having stolen Kenny’s gloves.

10Byron is unruly. His parents —and his brother— call him an “official juvenile delinquent.” He is no criminal, of course. He simply runs with the wrong crowd, plays truant, runs the family’s grocery bill up, steals (green) apples, kills sparrows with stones. In short, Byron (AKA “Daddy Cool” when Kenneth is being cross or ironical) plays with fire in life and figuratively. When he gets a conk, Daniel is merciless: he shaves his hair and the parents decide to take their son to his grandmother, a strict disciplinarian who lives in Birmingham, so he amends over the summer (or a full year) and learns respect for adults [16, 126].

11That Byron’s getting a conk provokes his parents’decision to be good on their word and undertake so long a trip for his future welfare in life speaks to their racial awareness: there is nothing wrong with nappy hair, they tell him. People must be what they are, or, in American parlance, what God has made them.

12Daniel and Wilona Watson are a nice couple. Wilona takes devoted care of her children. An exile to Michigan, she over-protects them against the cold. Daniel likes to tease Wilona for her lack of resistance to cold weather, or for her ears that stick out [125-126], or again for her southern accent and ways of thinking. Amusing stereotyping does not prevent the family circle from being life-like enough: in the car, Daniel is at the wheel and drives all the way down in one stretch, disregarding Wilona’s careful three-day-long trip planning as she slumbers.

13Grandmother Sands’s magic works and Byron changes overnight in Birmingham. It is Kenneth who unexpectedly becomes disobedient and nearly drowns. The episode must be described in more detail. The children are advised not to go bathing at a certain point, and Kenneth misunderstands the word whirlpool. Byron, who likes a joke like all the men in the family, invents the “Wool Pooh” who, so he tells Kenneth, is Winny the Pooh’s evil twin brother. When hard-headed Kenneth nearly drowns while bathing at the forbidden place, he thinks the Wool Pooh is dragging him under by his feet, and even briefly confuses his brother who has come to the rescue with the evil beast. The Wool Pooh also is present later while Kenneth wrests what he thinks is Joetta’s shoe from under the bombed church rubble. Kenneth thinks he is seeing Joetta’s ghost when she comes home. The lad’s thoughts are moving, even though the episode is marred by a lack of verisimilitude. One wonders how Joetta could fail to hear the explosion and see the commotion, and how she could have left the church, mysteriously drawn across the street by someone that looked like Kenneth and beckoned her away from Sunday school.

14The family drive back to Flint directly after the bombing to shield Joetta while she is still unaware of the traumatic event that has just taken place.

15Kenneth’s wounds are the deepest, and it takes him time to overcome grief and stress thanks to Byron’s considerate complicity. For, in spite of difference and petty jealousy, the strength of the family group and devotion among the siblings are never in question. Both Kenneth and Byron have grown as the book ends. Birmingham has expunged whatever evil forces were in Byron, and there is no hint that they are still lurking outside. A better future is open.


16The story is told blandly in so far as there is no racial confrontation. The novel unfolds entirely among black people. The drive through the South takes place at night and the family do not come across anyone.

17Ever protective, Wilona fails to inform the children as to the existence of racial segregation: when she reveals her meticulous plans for the trip in three days, she mentions stopping at a motel in Cincinnati, then spending the second night at a “rest stop” (there are nice ones along the road, she says) or in the car if no stopping place can be found [165].

  • 6 Incidentally, the unredeemed Byron who respects nothing jokes their car is “turd” brown.

18Still, beyond its smooth racial surface, the novel creates a dichotomous world through the dog eats dog pitiless school microcosm and through the North and South mental borders. To Wilona, the South is the “good ol’ place” that harbors a sedate and friendly lifestyle. Not to Daniel who tells the children about “colored bathrooms” in the South [16-17], Daniel expresses his views on the racial geography of the U.S. in a quiet and humorous way, but he knows who he is and where he stands. There is good reason to believe he himself named their car (a 13-year-old hand-me-down from an uncle) the “Brown Bomber”6, an obvious allusion to Joe Louis. It is Daniel who explains to Kenneth that Byron’s stay in Birmingham is meant to make him ready for the world as a black man, that the silliness in him, the illusion that he can get away with anything, must be purged [155-156] and that there is no better place than the South for that.

19Daniel embodies modernity, and his moderate criticism of racism calls for another national/racial future: as a character, he brings in one of the two major symbols in the novel: a “Super Glid.” This machine was the ultimate in American car technology: a 45 rpm record player so designed the road surface did not interfere with smoothness. More important than modernity is Daniel’s stated aim: his wish to have the family listen to their own records rather than tune in to hillbilly radio stations while driving —in other words: be independent from “Southernness.” Wilona is cross at the expense, and there follows a hilarious passage in which Daniel ingratiates himself to her by impersonating a disk jockey who plays the favorite tune of somebody’s (his own, of course) loved lady... after which the Watsons decide to democratically take turns to play their favorites on the road.

  • 7 There can be no sanctuary in an evil world. Such is the message also gathered from Dudley Randall’ (...)

20However, Daniel’s wish dies away. Either modern technology has broken down in the Southern night, or Daniel is too tired to feed records into the machine: when Kenneth wakes up in the wee hours of the third day on the road, the Super Glide emits endless scratchy sounds while the car radio plays blue grass music. The implication is obvious: there is no escaping the realities of the South. Contrary to what Daniel had hoped, the Watsons have not been able to “bring [their] own sounds with [them]” [159]7.

21The second major symbol for Southern evil is the “Wool Pooh”. One notes that it is not simplistically one-sided. It first appears as Kenneth, the more docile son, wades in a dangerous prohibited place. Kenny has a political reading of the warning not to bathe there: some mean owner (probably white) wants to keep a beautiful enticing spot for himself and his parents are wrong to accept such racially motivated selfishness. Of course, this childish political self-delusion makes place for real southern evil when the church is bombed; and this is what Kenneth goes back to Flint with


22I opened the novel without any inkling of the contents. In spite of the cover (a clean car parked in front of a nice house, photos of a smiling family) I expected a wholly different fiction, one in which the protagonists would be involved in some way in the children’s marches. I was incorrect. TWGTB manipulates chronology to exclude that part of history. The actual bombing took place on September 15, 1963, while the Watsons leave for Birmingham as a the school summer recess begins for Byron to spend the summer there.

  • 8 A nickname for the city used to be “Bombingham”. Angela Davis was born in Smithfield, a black midd (...)

23So, the novel emphasizes the horror of the bombing, white Southern bigotry leading to terrorism while it glosses over black militancy. If we imagine a young reader (white or black) without a background in history who has their own contemporary world in mind (there has been an improvement, at least cosmetic, with a few black people in high political visibility), the effect of that limited representation will be to hide the way through which today’s racial situation has come to be what it is. This historically naïve reader will close the book with no notion of black agency, of the courage and determination it took to confront Southern-style law and order; or, as the bombing is made to seem an isolated act of madness, of the reasons for the centuries-long black rancor8.

  • 9 According to the local media, as everywhere in the South at the time, trouble was bred by “outside (...)
  • 10 A statement Andrew Young makes in Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls”.

24Grandmother Sands hides the events from Daniel and Wilona when they phone her: according to her (“don’t you believe what people say” [150-151]) nothing is happening and the neighborhood is quiet. This misrepresentation of facts is highly ambiguous: either she lies to encourage her family she hasn’t seen in ten years to drive down to Birmingham, or she has been hoodwinked by the local media9. The old woman cannot be ignorant of the ongoing demonstrations because the 16th Street Baptist church, the hub of the marches throughout the movement, is within walking distance from her house. She cannot possibly have missed the groups (from 10 to 50 strong at a time) that left to march downtown in defiance of the town hall’s injunction. Especially as the police cordoned off the area within a few blocks from the church and many of the arrests took place in that area10.

  • 11 In Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King cites Rev. Shuttlesworth’s argument: the segregationist f (...)

25The movement first stirred into existence in 1962 when students from Miles College targeted local businesses through picketing and boycotts. The Christmas 1962 preliminaries caused Jim Crow signs to only briefly disappear from a few shop windows, store restrooms and water fountains. Reverend Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights claimed good will could only encourage whites to continue the status quo and urged action in spite of the coming mayoral campaign11. The Birmingham campaign proper began on April 3rd, 1963, after the mayoral election was held and contested by racist hard liners.

  • 12 “Bull” Connor had the manager of the bus station arrested four times in two weeks in 1961 for comp (...)
  • 13 Billy Graham advised King to “put the brakes on a little bit” [Miller 150]. About Robert Kennedy’s (...)
  • 14 Much fund raising took place in New York under the aegis of Dick Gregory. Other major donors were (...)

26The beginnings were shaky. Only a small group of dedicated people, about 300, was ready to march and go to jail. It was hard to galvanize people into action in a city where racism was so strongly entrenched that even moderate whites hardly dared speak up12. Many in he country, among them Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Reverend Billy Graham, The Washington Post and other liberal media found the movement was ill-timed and urged the militants to moderation13. Local blacks were critical of the secrecy maintained between SCLC and ACMHR as project C (for confrontation) was in the planning stage. Conservatives (among whom the eight ministers to whom Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) advocated restraint. Black morale grew lower when the movement’s funds for bailing purposes proved insufficient14.

  • 15 Malcolm X criticized sharply King for endangering the lives of young people.

27A new phase began after King was released from jail. King first was reluctant to resort to Reverend Jim Bevel’s idea to organize the Birmingham youth (a stratagem first used in Statesville and Durham, N.C.), but finally assented after Bevel and Andrew Young had proceeded without a formal agreement of the movement’s board. The first contingent, 300 youths whose ages ranged from 6 to 16 [Miller 152], was trained for non-violence in the 16th Street Baptist church. Bevel called May 2nd “D-day.” The word was to “fill the jails” and about 600 arrests were made —the youngest marcher was six [Dormán 173, McWhorter 368], The police started using school buses for transportation, and fairgrounds and sports facilities for detention centers, when they ran out of prison space and paddy wagons. “Double D-day” took place on the following day when about 1,500 students missed school. That was the day when the fire brigade first turned their hoses on and Bull Connor ordered police dogs to be brought on the scene. The response of the Birmingham youth was growing: a school with a student body of 1,426 had 1,339 declared missing. The principal of Parker High had the gates closed only to see the students climb out of the premises [King 98, Dorman 177], The participation of the Birmingham youth, hit off their feet by the fire brigade’s high pressure water canons, their clothes torn by snarling police dogs and the spectacle of a white armored vehicle on national TV channels created the sympathy the movement needed. In June, there were as many as 3,000 marchers daily, and police violence provoked some rioting that the movement’s staff found hard to contain. King’s Why We Can’t Wait insists on the strategic role of the young, the wings they gave to the movement: it “brought the impetus that was needed to win the struggle,” and gave the young a “true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice” [97], That King tried to defuse criticism in Why We Can’t Wait15 is understandable and correct, but it is equally correct that the young changed the face of the campaign.


28One of the study guides praises Curtis for Writing books that “appeal to people of all races” [Migliaccio 6]. One of the reasons for the novel’s general success may be that, apart from the horrible bombing tragedy, it offers a fairly innocuous view of the early 1960s racial situation. No vicious racial bigot ever steps onto the page. No direct confrontation with any hostile white person ever happens. The children’s only nightly frights on the road, up in the Appalachian mountains, arise from their childish imaginations: isolation, shadows, or snakes when they go to relieve themselves in the woods —away from smelly rest stop latrines. And later, no shadow of a policeman or fireman is ever seen in Birmingham. Not even on the scene of the bombing.

  • 16 This epilogue does mention the other two casualties of that day in the unrest that followed the bo (...)

29To state this is not to hint that Curtis is happy with the US racial scene. His success as a writer of juvenile novels has allowed him to make Canada his home. A better proof may be the existence of a five-page-long epilogue (unrelated to the story) that briefly accounts16 for the role of the Birmingham movement within the Civil Rights campaign. Besides, in an interview transcribed in The ALAN Review (on-line), Curtis expresses his hope that his young readers will engage in some personal research and think on their own.

  • 17 The extremely didactically naïve passage when Kenneth looks at the victims’bodies on the lawn is p (...)
  • 18 The Attorney General for Alabama argues in “4 Little Girls” that only Chambliss was brought to tri (...)

30Still, the novel as a finished product allows for too bland and consensual a representation17 for two reasons. Firstly, blacks are merely pictured as grieving victims, especially when Kenneth walks home with the girl’s shoe he has retrieved from the rubble, or, back in Flint, when he hides behind the living room couch like a wounded animal. The tragedy is confined to the family circle. Can Kenneth’s grief alone justify his being blind to the aftermath of the bombing? The novel fails to bring up the fury that followed the blast when hundreds of people poured into the streets and some pelted the police and firemen with rocks and rubble. Secondly, no one today will approve of bomb-planting. Only Robert Chambliss was sentenced in 1977, even though the FBI (as early as 1964) could put four names behind the tragedy18. Chambliss’s self-satisfied on-camera grin outside the courtroom can never be forgotten and the case has been reopened. Thomas Blanton was sentenced in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. Only Herman Cash escaped conviction: he died in 1994 before the new judicial proceedings.

31The book’s ending is moderately hopeful in so far as Kenneth triumphs over his depression with his brother’s support. Two elements may help account for the novel’s contents. To begin with, there is the political restraint typical of juvenile fiction (it must end well). Secondly, there is the existence of an earlier manuscript Curtis had set aside, a lighthearted story based on the trip a loving and lovable black family was taking to visit Daniel’s sister in Florida: a drive during which nothing happened.

  • 19 In real life, it was Denise McNair’s grandfather who retrieved the shoe from the scene [Morgan 162 (...)

32When Curtis’s son came home from school with Dudley Randall’s broadside “Ballad of Birmingham,” rewriting started, to include, embrace, the bombing tragedy. That Randall’s poem is the inspirational source is unmistakable: the shoe lifted out from the rubble in the poem simply changes color from white to black19. However, one must note the poem’s first four (out of eight) stanzas in which the mother forbids marching downtown because it is safer to sit and pray in church are by-passed.


33There is no room here for a detailed account of the study guides and the on-line comments. One remark must be made at the outset: that they continue the novel’s historical amnesia. Indeed, four out of six of them do encourage historical research but none of them supplies a link to the children’s crusade. One of them incites teachers to play Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” in class prior to reading the book; another one simply mentions the film in its “further research” section.

34The study guides provide keys to language and the mechanics of fiction, but historical issues are hardly raised. Much of the space is typically devoted to basic story comprehension. Multiple choice questionnaires are offered, words and literary aspects such as symbols are explained. There sometimes also is geography, or math problems such as computing the Brown Bomber’s fuel consumption on the trip. Attention is also drawn to the societal values the novel proposes through the protagonists’ attitudes and actions. Biographical information on the author and the novel’s genesis is also provided. One on-line site invites comments from young readers.

35The most social and history-minded guide is Eric Migliaccio’s, in the “Literature Unit” series, that cites the historical background as an “essential” pre-reading classroom activity, encourages the students to engage in library research on civil rightsrelated people and topics [29], Kyla Brown’s guide in the “Focus on Reading” series (purchased through Christian Books) is the least satisfying for the historian. Its “historical background” section comprises 5 paragraphs, in this order:

twelve hopeful lines on the national change that arose from the 1954 Brown school desegregation case
eight lines on how southern migrants found poverty and unemployment in the industrial north
five lines on (past) racial discrimination in the South concentrate on segregation, as if racial violence, raping, lynching, etc. never happened and the Ku Klux Klan never existed
ten lines on the Sep. 15 bombing, but no allusion to any other civil rights campaign, nor white resistance
ten more lines on the perpetrators’sentencing; a way to hint that justice has finally prevailed in the land of fairness and freedom


36Every fiction is a system that proposes models to follow or to reject. All fictions therefore wield some form of power, especially books meant for younger reading publics. The young are users of juvenile literature, not creators. Only through the act of reading do they create thought; and the question therefore concerns the kind of reading a fiction will induce. A book that fails to offer a locus for resistance or interrogation instructs without educating — i.e. without giving individual readers a chance to think by themselves. Here is the basis of my objection to TWGTB: social change since the 1960s that any youthful contemporary reader can measure today seems to result from a miracle because black protagonists are only represented as victims —never as agents of their own future. It is hard to conceive of a story that, while representing black hurt, could be more tranquilizing about the rampant racism of four decades ago.

37One must of course be conscious of the constraints of the literary genre Curtis adopted, in terms of length and perspective. But that the children’s impact on the movement should have been entirely left aside is strange because it precisely was the young who made that campaign decisive —which may have been a motive for the murderers to target that particular church on that particular day, as Diane McWhorter suggests in her preface through the phrase “ghoulish symmetry” [McWhorter 15]. Besides, Martin Luther King argued in defense of the movement’s bringing black youth onto the Birmingham streets that it gave them an opportunity to peacefully speak up for themselves, in other words turned them into better future citizens. How far the novel achieves this for today’s children in grade school is a moot point. TWGTB highlights prized societal values: a strong family, solidarity, charity, prudence, tolerance and consideration for others. But good citizens are also those who stand up for principle, for equality and fairness, and participate in civic life.

38TWGTB has been widely praised and commented upon in the U.S. Rightly so, as it makes entertaining reading. But no one seems to have asked the participants in the 1963 children’s crusade how they feel about its forgetting their daring challenge to bigotry. Applause, black and white alike, seems to be unanimous. Yet, there is room for disagreement. This fiction does leave one wanting something else somewhere along the road because it is silent on the courage and dignity inspiring an important historical event.



BROWN Kyla, 2002. Focus on reading: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Portland, ME, J. Weston Walch.

COOK Erin and RACINE Leanna, 2005. “The Children’s Crusade and the Role of Youth in the African American Freedom Struggle”, OAH Magazine of History, Jan. 2005.

CURTIS Christopher Paul, (1995). The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, New York, NY, Thorndike.

DORMAN Michael, 1964. We Shall Overcome, New York, NY: Dell.

GRIFFIN Amy, 2003. Scholastic BookFiles: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, New York, NY: Scholastic.

KING Martin Luther Jr., 1964. Why We Can’t Wait. New York, NY: Signet.

MCWHORTER Diane, 2002. Carry Me Home, Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York, NY, Touchstone.

MIGLIACCIO Eric, 2002. Literature Unit: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Westminster, CA, Teacher Created Materials.

MILLER William Robert, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. His Life, Martyrdom and Meaning for the World, New York, NY: Avon.

MORGAN Charles Jr., 1964. A Time to Speak, New York, NY: Harper & Row.


Alan Review (The). 1999.

ARCHIBALD John, 2005. “Justice Rolls down from that hill”
Archive:December 2, 1997:

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute:

LEE Spike, 1998. “4 Little Girls”. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks / HBO Home Video.

Teachers at random, 2004. Teachers Guide: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:


1 All references given between square brackets are to the 2004 Thomdike Press edition. All occurrences of the title below are shortened to TWGTB.

2 The three study guides available on the market first came out in 2002 and 2003. Online sites such The ALAN Review were posted earlier.

3 Robert Chambliss’s role and friendly complicity with Bull Connor’s police started in the second half of the 1940s and continued when the Dixiecrats came into existence [McWhorter 73-74, 85-86, 98-99],

4 To my knowledge, there exists only one novel reminding potential readers of the Birmingham protest of 1963: Anthony Grooms’s Bombingham (New York, Free Press, 2001) brings death in Vietnam and the movement together as a soldier writes a letter to the parents of a fallen friend.

5 Curtis’s father was a physician. But he could not support his family with his medical practice, and supplemented his income as a worker in the automobile industry. Curtis himself, who attended night school (political science) at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, worked thriteen years on the Buick assembly line [Scholastic Book Files, 6].

6 Incidentally, the unredeemed Byron who respects nothing jokes their car is “turd” brown.

7 There can be no sanctuary in an evil world. Such is the message also gathered from Dudley Randall’s broadside (“Ballad of Birmingham”) that inspired the novel’s ending: the young girl is refused permission to join the marchers (her mother is fearful of danger) but dies in the blast in the church.

8 A nickname for the city used to be “Bombingham”. Angela Davis was born in Smithfield, a black middle class enclave also known as “Dynamite Hill”. There occurred 17 “unsolved” bombings between 1956 and 1963, 50 cross burnings, numberless incidents in stores or on the street, two rapes and one lynching. Racist behavior was part of everyday life. Eugene “Bull” Connor who illustrated himself on national television screens during the 1963 campaign had been Commissioner of Public Safety for 23 years.

9 According to the local media, as everywhere in the South at the time, trouble was bred by “outsiders” —not “our own negro community” [Miller 150].

10 A statement Andrew Young makes in Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls”.

11 In Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King cites Rev. Shuttlesworth’s argument: the segregationist front runner, Boutwell, would prove to be “just a dignified Bull Connor” [King 59],

12 “Bull” Connor had the manager of the bus station arrested four times in two weeks in 1961 for complying with the Circuit Court order to desegregate [Miller 143].

13 Billy Graham advised King to “put the brakes on a little bit” [Miller 150]. About Robert Kennedy’s sentiment, or the press, see King 65-66. One must however point out that the Federal Government supported the movement by sending Burke Marshall (Chief Civil Rights Assistant), and Joseph F. Dolan (Assistant Deputy Attorney General) to seek a truce through negotiations with the Senior Citizens’ Committee.
Marshall enjoyed full authority to represent President Kennedy, and never suggested that the movement should engage in any “cooling off period” [King 103, Miller 156].

14 Much fund raising took place in New York under the aegis of Dick Gregory. Other major donors were Harry Belafonte, A.G. Gaston and the UAW [King 57, 75, Dorman 188, Miller 157].

15 Malcolm X criticized sharply King for endangering the lives of young people.

16 This epilogue does mention the other two casualties of that day in the unrest that followed the bombing [Curtis 258], and concludes by calling the participants in the struggle “true American heroes” [Curtis 259].

17 The extremely didactically naïve passage when Kenneth looks at the victims’bodies on the lawn is part on this consensus-building context: “... I walked past where that guy had set the little girl in blue, right next to where someone else had set a little girl in red. I knew that if Joey sat down next to those two their dresses would make the red, white and blue of the American flag.” [230]

18 The Attorney General for Alabama argues in “4 Little Girls” that only Chambliss was brought to trial for the sake of efficiency, as solid evidence was needed to get a conviction —but there may also have been some foot-dragging.

19 In real life, it was Denise McNair’s grandfather who retrieved the shoe from the scene [Morgan 162], The novel dramatizes the bombing by having Kenneth think his sister is a victim. Juvenile fiction works best when the reader can identify with the narrator. But a look at the original manuscript that Curtis laid aside is indispensable to gauge the extent of the rewriting.


Université de Tours
(Professeur émérite, Université de Tours) started reasearch on African-American fiction as a social discourse with his doctoral dissertation defended in 1981 (Université de Paris VIII): «L’Enfance et l’adolescence chez les romanciers afro-américains, 1853-1969». He has taught American as well as African-American studies at the Universities of Le Mans and Tours in France, as well as at several American universities as an exchange professor. He has contributed articles to a number of journals, and edited or co-edited collections of essays on Jean Toomer (Ellipses), John Edgar Wideman (Callaloo) and African-American detective fiction (CRAFT-2). His most recent contribution is the editing of a collection “Reading Percival Everett: European Perspectives” (CRAFT-4). He is a member of the Collegium for African-American Research committee.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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