A few weeks ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ground-breaking I Have a Dream speech. Today is a more somber civil rights anniversary, the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The event that outraged a nation 50 years ago had a profound effect on Christopher Paul Curtis and led to his award-winning career as a children's book author. In the guest post below, Curtis shares his story and that of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, now a beloved classic of children's literature and airing as a television movie on September 20th.
September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the event that inspired The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963. I was ten years old at the time of the bombing, and I was stunned to see my parents cry when they heard the news. Not only did my mother’s and father’s reactions terrify me, their pain also showed me how momentous this act of terrorism was. As I write this, I’m preparing to go to Birmingham this September to be part of the city’s observance of the anniversary. I am deeply honored by this invitation.
I’m also looking forward to the release of the Hallmark Channel Original Movie on September 20, 2013 of TWGTB. As any author would, I initially had doubts and worries about how my novel would be treated in the transition from the page to the screen. After seeing some of the filming and meeting the producers, the director, the amazing cast, and the production crew my doubts are gone. The team has done a wonderful job of making the novel come alive on the screen. I am proud of the fact that I am a member of that team.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 came at the right time in my life, a time when I was deeply unhappy in every job I’d held, (working in an automobile factory for thirteen years, unloading trucks in a warehouse) and felt there was more that I could be doing. When my editor Wendy Lamb accepted The Watsons for publication I don’t think either of us had any idea of the impact the book would have. We never dreamed Kenny Watson’s voice would be heard by millions of children and used for city wide reads and as a tool to help communities address racism. Wendy and I would like to give our sincerest thanks to the many booksellers, teachers, parents and librarians everywhere who have been a crucial part of making this happen. Without their care and understanding the voice of Kenny Watson would still be locked in the head of an unhappy Flint autoworker.
Finally, as we look back on the fiftieth anniversary of the summer of ’63 I am hopeful that Kenny’s story will help children understand the power that comes from committed people acting together to bring about change. I hope my readers will be inclined to use this occasion to celebrate the courage of those who fought for Civil Rights. As I say in the epilogue of TWGTB, “These are the people who believe as long as one person is being treated unfairly, we all are. These are our true American heroes and they still walk among us today. One of them may be sitting next to you as you read this, or standing in the next room making your dinner, or waiting for you to come outside and play.
One of them may be you.
Christopher Paul Curtis