In Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary, award-winning biographer Elizabeth Partridge (This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie; Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange; John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth) shifts her attention away from chronicling lives of artists. Captivated by the children and young adults who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, Partridge wanted to tell their stories. She spoke with Bookshelf about how luck, good timing and coincidence came together during the writing of this book.
Had you been contemplating a book on the Civil Rights Movement before you saw photographer Matt Herron’s photos online? You credit him with jumpstarting the book.
No, I had not had the least inkling to do a book on the Civil Rights Movement. And then I ran into Matt’s Web site. I was stupefied. I fell in love with his photos, 100 percent in love with what he had done on the march, and I just wanted to get those photos out there.
How did you happen across them?
I was actually looking up something about Pete Seeger, and I read that he’d been on the march. Matt had two [images] posted on his Web site of Pete Seeger, which ironically enough didn’t end up in the book because I was so focused on the kids by the time I got to doing the book. I sent Matt an e-mail saying, ‘I’m totally in love with your photos. I love photography. I grew up in a photographer’s family.’ I explained that I’d done a book on Dorothea Lange, and he wrote back, ‘Dorothea was my mentor!’
You had a connection right off the bat?
Totally. I went to visit him, and on the living room wall were two of my grandmother’s photographs. He’d been a young photographer, and he’d known my grandmother, Imogen Cunningham. He told me this great story about how he told my grandmother that he wanted this one particular photograph of hers, and she said, ‘Well, I need some gardening done.’ So he went to her house and gardened a whole day in exchange for this photograph. We had a blast working together.
Another of my goals was to publish photographs that had never been seen. It’s a very intense pleasure for me. Here’s this amazing photograph that’s just been sitting in somebody’s drawer for decades, and I can put it out there, and kids can see it, librarians can see it, adults can see it.
Was it the children in the photos that drew you to them?
Initially it was the energy of everyone. The intensity of feeling from everybody came across first. You just look at those photos and say, ‘Wow! These people are determined.’ Then I began to realize how many kids were in the photos. So I went to Selma, and I took photos, or Xeroxes of photos, and showed them to people and got identifying names.
You just went around town showing the photos?
I had set up some interviews with people, and some of them knew who these kids were and what had become of them, so I was able to put some names to the kids, which was a big thrill for me.
Were they eager to talk about their experience?
[The march] was such an intense experience for those kids. When I asked them questions, it was still extremely vivid for them because it had been so intense. I found them incredibly able to talk about what had happened.
Are you still in touch with the people you interviewed?
I am. They’re wonderful. I’m Facebook friends with three of them!
Your other nonfiction books are biographies about famous artists. Was writing and researching about these kids in Selma, who were not well-known, a more complicated process than focusing on one individual?
It was different. When I did the biographies on one person, I was looking for what made that one person tick. What was their emotional fabric? With the march, I felt like I was pulling together a lot of different pieces, more like a patchwork quilt. It was easier to finish the book. When I had done the biographies, it was so hard to let go of the person, because by that time I’m in such an intense relationship with them. This time, they’re all still alive, these kids I interviewed. I was so excited to get this book out there.
And let their stories be told?
Yeah. You don’t often find a story that hasn’t been told. The message for me was, these kids, who really had nothing—they had their own courage and some songs—I really do feel they changed the world. As I realized the enormity of this, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, these kids changed our country!’ What a thing to show kids today who might be feeling hopeless or helpless.
In an article you wrote for School Library Journal, you said you wanted your biographies to reach kids who were feeling despair. Is that your same hope for Marching for Freedom?
No, it’s a little different this time, which I didn’t see coming. What’s different is that I’ve always been afraid of the words ‘social activism,’ because they’re big words, and put together, they’re really big! It’s so loaded for me. This time I realized this [story] is about social activism. These aren’t individual kids who made a difference; this was the power of a group of people working together. This is a huge value we’re trying to teach our children today, that they really can change things by working together. I saw a power in groups that could work together.
When I started this project we didn’t know if we’d have Obama or Clinton as our Democratic nominee. I felt like I was taking kind of a long shot, like, ‘If Obama doesn’t get to run for president, this book is going to be disregarded.’ But when he won the presidency... and his message is volunteerism, I can say, ‘Look, this is what Obama is encouraging people to do. It’s been done in the past, and it can be done again.’ It put me in this position of feeling like this wave of social activism had a new meaning.
Did you notice any similarities between these kids and the artists you’ve written about?
No. What I loved was the difference. I was out of the art category for the first time. It really is striking how little these kids had, and how they learned to question the rules and norms that were being enforced and how their minds were open to changing. The people I did my biographies on... were intense people who had negative traits as well as positive traits. These kids were not in that category. These were just ordinary kids who got up every morning and went back out on the streets.
To risk their lives. Did they have something in common that propelled them to do that? Were they all angry or fed up?
They weren’t even quite old enough to be fed up. It was just the water they swam in until they looked at it. Until the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] leaders came in and said, ‘Why do you have to drink out of the Black fountain? Why can’t you sit at the drugstore counter at Carter’s and have an ice-cream?’ I will say as a group, as adults, they are certainly a very grounded group of people. But these were the kids who were willing to do it, to be out there. There’s definitely some kind of fiber.
Did you build your narrative around the experiences of the people you interviewed, or did you chronicle the historical events and go back and insert their experiences? What was the writing process like?
First I did a humongous amount of research on physically what happened. Where were they this day? Who came into town? Who left? Of the whole march. And then I began to find the kids’ stuff. Once I interviewed them, that’s when the project came alive. The photos and the kids made the whole thing just rock. And then I started structuring it around the kids’ experiences. For example, before I talked to Lynda [Blackmon] Lowery, I understood the jail was a scary place and that you didn’t know what would happen. But once she told me about being locked in that box and passing out, you think, ‘Who would do this to a group of girls?’ That altered my narrative thread hugely. Because what I was looking for was that emotional resonance.
The freedom songs are a powerful motif in your book. When did you decide to weave them throughout?
I love the idea of an ‘audio track’ for this book. I started listening to them really early on in the process. What I like to do is get in my writing room, close the door and put on some music that shuts out the outside world and puts me into the world I’m looking for. So those songs, the people singing, just filled me up and put me there. I’m just redoing my Web site now, and Smithsonian Folkways has given me the rights to put 30 seconds of six different songs on my website.
I also did this thing called Google Lit Trips. A guy named Jerome Burg, a retired English teacher, runs this nonprofit Web site where he maps out a journey that is taken in a kids’ book, like Grapes of Wrath. And using Google Earth, they show all the locations and information about the book. He and I are just finishing up a Google Lit Trip for my book.
It sounds perfect for a book about a long march.
This is so fantastic. We’ve named all the sites around Selma and put in information I couldn’t fit in the book and photos I couldn’t fit in the book. And then we take people on the march. We’ve embedded films of people marching, marching, marching, of [Martin Luther] King speaking.
This year, you have two very different books out. Marching for Freedom and a picture book, Big Cat Pepper, about how a boy and his family deal with the death of their cat. Did you work on them simultaneously?
I worked on Big Cat Pepper on and off for many years. Any picture book’s got to look like you just rolled out of bed and wrote it down one morning, but it actually took me much, much longer than Marching for Freedom. I must have done 30 or 40 versions of Big Cat Pepper.
Is it autobiographical, about your son when he was young, having to bury a pet?
Yes, we had buried a pet, and he had stripped every petal off my roses and thrown them in there. His grief was so intense at that moment. He was about eight, about the age of the main character in Big Cat Pepper.
What is that ‘aha’ moment that draws you to a subject and makes you want to write about it?
It jumps up and grabs me. I do think that’s one of the pleasures of being a writer. For me, that moment was when my son was so grief-stricken and strewing the rose petals in the grave as a way of trying to bid his pet goodbye. Those things implant in your heart. And then I had a very dear friend, Martha Weston, an illustrator who suddenly died at a way-too-young age. And that’s when I started working on [Big Cat Pepper]. Those unconscious pieces came together for me.
You were a practicing acupuncturist before becoming a writer. Any day-to-day similarities between doing those two jobs—writer and healer?
Yeah, there is actually. In acupuncture, it’s me and another person closely relating, with me trying to help. It’s a very personal, intimate experience. And writing, it’s the same thing. I’m always looking for that same place, going deeper. With the biographies, it was really clear. Like with Woody Guthrie, I suddenly realized that the guy—his mother had died of Huntington’s disease—knew early on and denied at the same time, that he was getting it. And I realized that the Huntington’s informed his entire life. So I wrote ‘haunted by Huntington’s’ on a Post-it and stuck it on my computer and got to work. That’s actually the similarity, to find that emotional place inside the words.
Much of your writing has required a good deal of primary source research. Does that come easily to you?
I love primary source materials because I’m looking for those moments. My husband calls me an ‘emotional biologist’ because I’m always looking deeper and deeper to see what makes people tick. I love being in libraries. When I did my book on John Lennon, I read that Yoko Ono had written an article in 1972 in a Japanese art magazine in Japanese. I actually went up to UC Berkeley, got them to get that magazine out of storage and had someone translate it. I was able to get a much more nuanced version of her.
So, it’s like detective work when you head into the library?
It can be, honestly, a euphoric experience for me. Like when I realized Marching for Freedom was really about the kids, that plenty of people had told the Martin Luther King version and the John Lewis version. But that there was this whole story sitting there. It was a feeling of euphoria for me!
How long did it take you to write it?
This one was really fast. I saw the idea in spring of ’08. Crazy fast. I dropped everything in my life.
So your husband hasn’t seen you for the last year or so?
He’s like, ‘What’s your name?’ I guess I’m a little OCD. A year and a half. One trip down to Selma, which happened to be on November 4th. On Election Night, remember we didn’t know how the election was going to turn out? I was in one of the churches where people were speaking and singing. And then I joined a candlelight vigil across the [Edmund Pettus] bridge, and it was beautiful. Just the sound of our feet. It was a silent march over the bridge with people holding candles. We walked across the bridge to the site of Bloody Sunday. And Amelia Boynton, who was badly beaten up [on Bloody Sunday] was speaking. And everybody moved in really close to see her. She was in her 90s. We all got closer and closer, and suddenly somebody called out, ‘Obama’s taken Pennsylvania,’ and we then knew he would win the election. People started cheering and yelling and crying.
Did you plan to be there on Election Day?
No, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be there on Election Day... Okay, vote ahead of time....’ Then ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be there on Election Day!’ It was another lucky piece of this whole book.
All the pieces came together for you.
They just came together. Do you know one other thing that’s really important about this book? This does not feel like my book. This feels like the book of the people who were there. It’s the funniest feeling, because I haven’t had it before. I put the pieces together, but it’s their book. This is their chance to say what they wanted to say.
Can you speak about your next creative endeavor?
I’m working on a novel, which is very scary. There’s no map. With nonfiction, you can’t change a fact. With a novel, the possibilities are infinite at every moment. I like the freedom of it, but it also terrifies me because I do have a vivid imagination, and I’m a little low on structure.
It’s historical fiction. I’m taking an Amer-Asian girl out of Vietnam in 1975 and plopping her into a family where she’s adopted by an American vet. The pasts they’re dragging with them—how it collides in their lives. Wish me luck!
Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge. Viking, $19.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-670-01189-6