In 1961, I was eleven years old, and while I had memories of hearing Chet Huntley and David Brinkley talk about the Freedom Ride on their NBC news broadcast, I didn’t know a great deal about it. I had written about the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation in We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin and knew that that the Freedom Ride of 1961 was modeled after it. Both rides were meant to demonstrate that the 1946 Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, which outlawed segregated seating on interstate bus travel, wasn’t being enforced with an even hand throughout the United States. In the South, segregated seating was still almost as common in 1961 as it had been in 1947, and in many parts it was the custom, if not the local law.
The idea for the book came from a librarian’s request. Cindy Clevenger asked Kathleen Krull, my friend and noted nonfiction author, to write something about the Freedom Ride for a younger audience. Kathy passed the idea along to me because she felt it would complement the other books I’ve written on the topics of civil rights and social justice. I rose to the challenge.
When I began my research, there were questions I wanted to answer for myself, as much as for young readers. Indeed, most of my nonfiction books are written to satisfy my own need to know. Who, besides John Lewis, participated in the May 1961 ride? Who organized it? Did the riders face violence anywhere other than in Anniston, Alabama, and Birmingham? What role, if any, did Martin Luther King Jr. play? The question of who was on the ride was especially important to me as a writer because I like to shine light on the unknown soldiers of the civil rights movement.
As I researched, I also was trying to find my door into the structure of the story. I found that door in a detailed academic account written by Raymond Arsenault, which also included a map that tracked the ride from Washington, DC, to Birmingham. It came to me then to write it as a day-by-day journal or diary, perhaps one the reader kept. I decided to tell it in present tense to help in this effort, putting the reader on the ride as the Freedom Riders made their way deeper into the South. I wanted the readers to be eye-witnesses to the history which was unfolding. It proved to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I just found it extremely difficult to write about the past in present tense. I was so unsure of my ability to do it that I refused to even hint at what I was working on to my editor, telling her only that if it worked I’d send it to her.
I didn’t want to interrupt the present-tense story with sidebars to explain why or when the separate-but-equal doctrine came into being and when it was determined to be a burden on interstate passenger travel, nor did I want to explain the term “sit-in” or what the Brown decision was. This would not be something a diary-keeper would do, but I knew my editor would want those details to be included, as well as what became of the original thirteen riders after the events in Birmingham. My editor has a delicious way of referring to Author Notes, etc., as “crap at the back.” I decided to unveil these details in past tense, putting what came before the rides at the very front of the book and what came after at the back. When I delivered the manuscript, I sent along a note explaining that the book doesn’t really begin until the narrative begins on May 4 (page 16 in the published book). “Everything else,” I wrote, “is either crap at the front or crap at the back. If you have questions, call me.” She got it right away, and came up with the idea of the calendar to separate the front-mattter from the main text. The book’s designer, Barbara Grzeslo, also got it and determined that front and back needed to be distinguished by a different font from that used in the day-by-day narrative. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to birth a book.
It took two years to research, write, and tweak this book. It is one near and dear to my heart. My hope is that when young people read it they will understand that voice is power, that actions—both small and large—can help bring about change. It is my hope they will use their voices and actions to make the world a better place.
Larry Dane Brimner is a life-long learner and teacher, having taught at the primary, elementary, junior and senior high school grades, as well as at the university level. While picture books are his first love, his nonfiction titles have been awarded the ALA-ALSC Robert F. Sibert Honor, the Carter G. Woodson Award, the Orbis Pictus Honor, the Jane Addams Award, among others. About Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961, Voices of Youth Advocates wrote, “Brimner’s merger of history with photographs imparts the drama and significance of the Freedom Ride of 1961,” while Booklist, in a starred review, called it “memorable” and “inherently dramatic . . . historically significant.” You can find him online.
I love hearing about the way he thought about sidebars, front matter, and back matter for this book.