Authors & Illustrators
Larry Dane Brimner
Larry Dane Brimner is the award-winning author of a number of civil rights and social justice titles, including We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin, Birmingham Sunday, Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene "Bull" Connor and STRIKE! The Farm Workers' Fight for Their Rights. He is also the author of The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and San Diego, California. Visit brimner.com.
We asked Larry Dane Brimner five questions about his fascinating, journalistic narrative TWELVE DAYS IN MAY, Freedom Ride 1961, available Fall 2017. See his answers below:
Five Questions for Larry Dane Brimner
Author of TWELVE DAYS IN MAY: FREEDOM RIDE 1961
(9781629795867, November 2017)
You have written several books now about civil rights for Calkins Creek. What draws you to this topic?
One might say that I’m a selfish researcher. I’m drawn to research and write about the civil rights because many of the movement’s major events—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, the Freedom Ride, and others—took place during my childhood. Yet most of the details of these events swept right by me because I was young and busy doing the things that children do. I want to be better informed, and so I choose to write about these events to fill in gaps in my own knowledge.
Beyond selfish motivation, I write about these topics because I have a deep sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. This I attribute to my parents, who taught me that no one is better than me and also that I am no better than anybody else. They grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920s and 1930s and left a short time after Eugene “Bull” Connor was elected to political office in 1936 on a Jim Crow platform of segregation. They instilled in me the belief that we are all equals in this world, or should be, and that every single person needs to be treated as such—afforded respect and dignity.
You are known for your thorough research. How did you go about researching TWELVE DAYS IN MAY and then decide on its structure?
The genesis for this book stems from a librarian’s request to Kathleen Krull for a book about the Freedom Ride aimed at young readers. Kathleen felt the topic was more suited to me and suggested I write it. Like most writers of history, I try to read everything pertinent to my topic before I begin writing. When I read Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, I realized that he had provided a detailed timeline of this historic journey. It struck me then to write it as a day-by-day journal, as if the reader is traveling aboard the bus with the thirteen freedom riders from town to city to hamlet. To help achieve a sense of immediacy, of happening now, the main text is told in the present tense. But I couldn’t just launch into the journey without first explaining why the freedom riders thought it important. Hence, I wrote an introduction—a prologue, if you will—in past tense to account for the landmark events that made the freedom ride necessary. This also allowed me to write the “journal” without interrupting it to explain Morgan or Plessy or the other steps that led up to the freedom ride. Finally, I felt it necessary to explain that the freedom rides did not end in Birmingham with the violence, but that they continued. Again, this section—an epilogue of sorts—is told in past tense.
I supplemented Arsenault’s excellent research with newspaper reports, interviews, and first-person accounts from Representative John Lewis, James Farmer, and James Peck, all of whom were on the Freedom Ride, Ordinarily, I would travel to my subject’s location to get a sense of it, but since so many of my previous titles have taken me to the South for research, I have many contacts with whom I was able to confirm details and ask questions by telephone or email, and they in turn pointed me to yet more sources and experts. Local librarians along the freedom riders’ route also provided me with information after I contacted them by email. Librarians are simply the best people in the world!
TWELVE DAYS IN MAY is about the struggle for civil rights. Isn’t that all ancient history?
I believe the study of history is relevant and important because it tells us how we got to where we are today, the strides we have or have not made as a society. Although the Freedom Ride took place in 1961 and we as a nation have made tremendous progress toward racial equality, we have not reached the goal line. The current political climate has allowed voices of racism and religious intolerance to rise to the surface, neo-Nazi and alt-right groups call for a new era of segregation and isolation, and there is an attempt to seal off the southern border of the United States. The drumbeat for school vouchers and charter schools echoes loudly, but in many instances this has more to do with keeping groups of youngsters segregated and apart than with quality education. More and more it seems the past is the present and if we are to move forward, we need to learn from prior mistakes.
What about the Freedom Ride helped shape our world today?
Freedom Ride 1961 began with the goal of making the citizens of the United States and their government aware that federal law wasn’t being universally applied. In many parts of the South, African Americans were still expected to ride in the back of public transportation and to eat in cafes and restaurants designated for “Colored” only. Segregation was still the expectation, if not the law, in the South. As the Freedom Ride progressed deeper into the South, the riders experienced increased violence with every passing mile. This helped to demonstrate the entrenched racism that plagued that part of the country and helped focus attention on the unfair treatment of blacks. The legacy of Freedom Ride 1961 is that it brought about change in the reality of public transportation, although that change came about slowly and with great resistance to desegregation.
What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
Most of the young people I meet in the country’s elementary and junior high schools that I visit are aghast that Americans treated their fellow citizens so badly. It is difficult for them to grasp the intolerance and violence that accompanied racial segregation. I hope that as they read this book, they will take a moment to reflect. How would they want to be treated? Would they want to be forced to sit in the back of a bus? Would they think it just to pay a fare at the front of a bus and then be told to exit and re-board through the rear door? Would they understand and accept being told that they could not eat at a particular lunch counter or drink from this or that fountain—because of the color of their skin? Whether anti-black or anti-white or anti-brown or anti-lavender, racism is learned, and I hope readers of TWELVE DAYS IN MAY will ask themselves how they should treat other human beings.