March With Me
text “March with Me” Author: Rosalie T. Turner Publisher: Cypress Creek Publishing Pages: 210 Price: $18.00
In her Foreword to “March With Me,” Rosalie Turner says a major motivation for writing this short novel was “the fact that most people in our country today have either forgotten or never knew about the Children’s March” in Birmingham in April of 1963.
Fifty years is a long time, but considering all the attention given to the civil rights semi-centennial, this initially seems hard to believe. We have, for instance, heard an enormous amount about the Beatles’ arrival in America 50 years ago, but no one is claiming that Americans don’t remember the Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Sadly, however, many have forgotten about Dr. King’s efforts to desegregate Birmingham.
Turner first provides a thumbnail history lesson of The Movement in Birmingham. There are scenes dramatizing the planning sessions with Reverends Abernathy and Shuttlesworth as well as the mass meetings, especially those where the charismatic Rev. James Bevel fired up the youth. Characters discuss the goals of the marchers: to integrate lunch counters, get blacks hired in department stores and, generally, be treated with dignity.
But all this is historical backdrop for the stories of two girls, the real stories, which run along two parallel lines. And that is a big part of the point: parallel lines don’t intersect.
Letitia Robinson, a black teenager in the spring of 1963, along with her brother Sam, is caught up in The Movement and one day she and her friends burst out of Parker High and join the Children’s March. Blasted by the hoses, she is only slightly injured but the anger she already feels is exacerbated to a nearly crippling degree.
Martha Ann Pierce is a white teen “over the mountain” in Vestavia Hills, a student at Shades Valley High, and, as the plot demands, Letitia’s mom works in the Pierces’ house two days a week. Mrs. Pierce calls Letitia’s mom Willa but insists on being called Miz Pierce and her daughter “Miss Martha Ann.” ONCE Letitia goes along to help her mom, to Martha Ann’s gigantic birthday party, where Martha Ann wears a corsage of white roses with 16 streaming ribbons, and tied to the end of each one is a cube of sugar. Sweet Sixteen. Letitia just shakes her head. Add to this that Letitia receives Martha Ann’s cast-off clothes, nice clothes, but still humiliating for her.
When Martha Ann and her friends are warmish and not at the pool, they cool off in the gentle spray of the backyard sprinklers, a stark contrast to Letitia’s hosing in the march.
What the two girls do share is ignorance and mistrust. Each in her mono-colored world has no notion of what goes on in the other. Letitia mistrusts all whites. Martha Ann, with her racist father, and only one friend, Connie, who could be called even loosely liberal, knows little of black life in Birmingham. At school on Monday, September 16,the students don’t even seem aware of the church bombing the day before. One girl, Sandra, admits she has heard about it but : “Why should we care? It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
Although Letitia has no way of seeing it, Martha Ann’s life is not without problems. Her father is a bully and mistreats her mother pretty steadily. Martha Ann hears her father’s angry shouts and her mother’s weeping. Martha Ann is afraid they might divorce: “if they did I’d be the only one in my class whose parents are divorced.”
(Those were the days, my friend.)
Sometimes Mrs. Pierce takes refuge in Martha Ann’s bedroom and in a rare candid conversation admits she has to take the abuse because she has no choice, no education: “I have no skills, no way to earn a living.”
Martha Ann and Letitia both decide to be schoolteachers. Letitia goes to Miles College, nearby and affordable.
Martha Ann attends UA and in 1968 finds it overwhelmingly big. (At the time it would have been around 15,000; now it is around 35,000.) She is astonished to find students with such varied backgrounds. If she went today she would find over half of the freshman class from out of state.
She does find life in Tuscaloosa exciting. Her friend Connie says “We can wear miniskirts anytime we want without our parents fussing at us.”
None of this is to say the novel is dated. It is just astonishing to think of the changes that have taken place.
Years later, April 1975, these two, both married with a child, end up teaching in the same Bessemer public school and still never speak meaningfully until they are literally pinned down side by side in the rubble of a tornado.
Whereas a lot of the dialogue earlier had the woodenness of bad playwriting, obvious exposition to fill in the backstory and bring the audience up to speed, this conversation, which takes place over 41 pages, powered by mutual terror, seems real. The two women actually talk and tell the truth, reveal their angers and fears. Covering subjects from black anger to affirmative action they expose their prejudices and preconceptions about the other and are the better for it.
This is clearly the kind of discussion Turner, optimistically, wants her book to provoke. The conversation is overdue, but seems as distant a goal today as it did 50 years ago.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”