We'll Never Turn Back

John F. Kennedy NHS & John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum present

An African-American student with books under his arm walks through a crowd of white students
A student walks into a newly integrated school in Clinton, TN, 1956. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran.


Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: A conference for classroom teachers and librarians of grades 3-8

On April 3, 2013, John F. Kennedy NHS and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum presented We'll Never Turn Back: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, a conference for classroom teachers and librarians of grades 3-8. On this page, you can learn more about the authors and activists who brought the day to life.

Portrait of Tonya Bolden

Tonya Bolden has written more than twenty books for children and adults. Born, bred and currently residing in New York City, she earned a B.A. (magna cum laude) from Princeton in 1981, and an M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Columbia University in 1985. During her college years, she was a company member of the Westside Repertory Theatre and subsequently worked on research and development for film and literary projects of James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter. Along with other research and editing assignments, she taught English for five years at the College of New Rochelle as she launched her own literary career.

Ms. Bolden initially found a niche collaborating on books with several noteworthy African American women, including Johnnetta B. Cole, Eartha Kitt and Diana Ross. During the 1990s she also wrote several works of fiction and nonfiction for young readers. When publisher Harry N. Abrams, Inc. formed a youth division in 1999, Tonya Bolden was tapped by the editor to create a line of books on African-American culture. They would include: Tell All the Children Our Story: Memories and Mementos of Being Young and Black in America, named a Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal; Wake Up Our Souls: A Celebration of Black American Artists; Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl, winner of the 2006 James Madison Book Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor book; George Washington Carver; and M.L.K.: Journey of a King, winner of the 2008 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. Her newest title for Abrams is Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty. Kirkus has given the book a star review, calling it "a vivid depiction of the issues and tensions surrounding abolition and the development of Lincoln's responses to them as the United States plunged into the Civil War."

Recent titles by Tonya Bolden for other publishers include: Up Close: W.E.B. Du Bois; FDR's Alphabet Soup: New Deal America, 1932 - 1939; and Finding Family, a novel told in words and photographs.

In an author spotlight for Random House, Ms. Bolden writes:

As a child I absolutely adored books. I loved the journeys they allowed, what they taught me about the world, how they gave my imagination a workout. The physicality of the book, I loved that too. Still do. As a child I wrote poems and stories just because. As a teen I wrote reams of poetry. In my student life, when it came to papers, writing was never the agony for me that it was for many of my classmates.

Writing is rewarding on several counts. There's the learning: As all the books I write require research, I am constantly learning. There's the clarifying: Through writing I come to terms with and gain insights on my own experience and sensibilities, along with the historical events that have shaped me. On the unselfish level, it is through writing that I am able to teach.When as a child I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, most often my response was "teacher." When I went to graduate school (Columbia University), it was with the idea that I would become a college professor. While there I took a few courses at Teachers College because for a minute I thought perhaps I'd become an elementary or secondary school teacher. In the end, I decided to pursue writing instead. Now, when I look at what the majority of my books are about, I realize that I ended up being a teacher.

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Portrait of Larry Dane Brimner

Larry Dane Brimner is a prolific author of books for children and young adults who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Although born in Florida, he spent his early childhood exploring Alaska's Kodiak Island and traces his love of reading to that time in his life. Since there was no television reception and only sporadic radio reception, entertainment came in the form of books and stories. Reading and making up stories was a part of day-to-day family life. Raised in a traditional Southern family-his parents hail from Birmingham, Alabama-telling falsehoods was frowned upon but embellishment was encouraged.

Mr. Brimner experienced his first writing successes-mostly in the genre of poetry-while still an undergraduate at San Diego State University, where he would earn a B.A. in British Literature and an M.A. in Writing. While teaching composition at Central Union High School in El Centro, California in the 1970s and 80s, he became interested in writing children's picture books and middle grade novels. He left Central Union in 1984 to devote more time to writing and also began teaching education courses at San Diego State. After the success of his first children's book, BMX Freestyle (1987), an International Reading Association Children's Choice, he has gone on to publish more than 150 books for young people in various genres.

In recent years, his books on civil rights history for middle grades have received wide acclaim. We are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin (2007) won the Norman A. Sugarman Biography Award and the Jane Addams Book Award; Birmingham Sunday (2010) received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and was an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book; Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene "Bull" Connor was a 2012 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book.

From an August 28, 2012 interview with Larry Brimner posted on the official blog of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI):

Q: You've become somewhat of an authority on the civil rights movement. What is it that you, a white man, find so appealing about it?

A: I've been asked this question many times and some have even suggested that I should leave black history to blacks and focus on my own history, and my response has been, "This is my history, too." I want to better understand what the struggle for civil rights was all about, and there is no better way to do that than by researching and writing about it. Furthermore, as a former teacher who visits schools across the country, I've been amazed by how little is taught about the struggle. It is almost as if the entire civil rights movement can be summarized in schools by the mention of two names: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Children, and even adult groups that I speak to, don't seem to understand that the movement relied largely on unknown foot soldiers who were doing the real work of planning and protest, who were on the front lines of agitation and being attacked and getting arrested time and again.

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Portrait of Françoise N. Hamlin

Françoise N. Hamlin is the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University. A former member of the history faculty at UMass Amherst, she earned her doctorate in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale, with a postgraduate fellowship at the University of Michigan. Professor Hamlin teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. history and cultural studies, African American history, and the Civil Rights Movement. Her current research focuses on children activists in the black freedom struggle of the 1950s to the 1970s.

Born and raised in London, England, an exchange year in Clarksdale, Mississippi proved to be a life-changing experience for her. She had anticipated being assigned to an urban, metropolitan high school but the exchange organization placed her instead in the small city in the Cotton Belt known mainly for its part in the history of the blues. In the preface to her recently published book, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II she recalls her arrival there and the impact of that year on her career path:

Clarksdale and the Delta redefined me. That place created its own drama in my life. I was the first black exchange student from England to arrive in the town, and I did my senior year at Coahoma County High School after finishing my Advanced Levels (A Levels) at home. Coming from London in 1991, I was assigned to a black woman in Coahoma County, Mississippi because a faceless and nameless someone thought that "I'd feel at home there." Sixty-three-year-old Corine Bradley lived in the Delta all her life and rarely slept out of arm's reach of her rifle. Poorly educated, she labored as a domestic and occasionally as a school bus driver, while raising two sons on her own….

Together, we spent many nights, over bowls of popcorn, as I listened to her stories of life in Mississippi. What she lacked in education she made up for in wisdom and common sense. Fiercely independent and always poor, she had worked hard all her life and still struggled to work despite her worsening health. She taught me tolerance, forgiveness, and the power of faith. With her, I changed. I wanted to know more about her life-and those of her friends and family. At Coahoma County High School, I (re)defined my identity as I struggled to make sense of my environment. I was hooked, turning down a guaranteed university slot to study law to read United States Studies.

Crossroads at Clarksdale, published by University of North Carolina Press in 2012, was called by one reviewer "a sweeping, moving, and pathbreaking history of a half century of civil rights activism."

Professor Hamlin is also co-editing a new anthology, Thunder at the Gate: African Americans on War, Freedom and Patriotism.

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Portrait of Barbara Henry

Barbara Henry, a Boston native, played a significant role in the integration of New Orleans' public school system. Born Barbara Gould in 1932, she graduated from the public Girls' Latin School. After earning a B.A. from Newton College of the Sacred Heart, and graduate studies in history and government at Boston College, she taught children of U.S. Air Force personnel in Europe from 1958-60. It was during this time that she met and fell in love with an Air Force officer named Elmer Henry. They were married in 1960, relocating in September of that year to her husband's home city of New Orleans.

Mrs. Henry applied for a position in the city's public school system, which was about to undergo court-ordered desegregation. She soon received a call from the superintendent who asked if she would mind teaching an integrated class. "Of course not," she replied, and was then hired and assigned to the William Frantz School. On November 14, 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend the Frantz School, arrived escorted by federal marshals. Most white parents had withdrawn their children, leaving Ruby as the sole pupil in Mrs. Henry's classroom. While the first grader braved the angry taunts of protestors on a daily basis Mrs. Henry made every effort to provide a nurturing and secure learning environment. She herself was isolated as the principal and other teachers treated her as an unwelcome outsider.

In the book, Through My Eyes (Scholastic, 1999) Ruby Bridges described the relationship with her teacher:

Being Mrs. Henry's only student wasn't a chore. It was fun and felt sort of special. She was more like my best friend than just an ordinary teacher. She was a loving person, and I knew she cared about me. Mrs. Henry and I always had fun. We did everything together, reading and word puzzles, spelling and math. We sang songs and played games. Since I couldn't go outside, we pushed desks out of the way and did jumping jack exercises. Once or twice Mrs. Henry got permission for us to walk in the school yard, but it was strange to be out there with no other kids around. I remember seeing men standing off in the corners of the yard. I thought they were hiding from somebody. Later, I learned that they were plainclothes detectives. I spent so much time with Mrs. Henry and liked her so much that I began to speak the way she spoke. I learned later that Mrs. Henry was a northerner, from Boston, Massachusetts, and she did not have a southern drawl. I didn't sound like my brothers and sister, but I didn't know why. I know now that Mrs. Henry influenced me a great deal that year. She had a polite, kind manner that I admired. In fact, I began to imitate her. Little by little, I grew to love Mrs. Henry. We became very attached to each other.

Towards the end of the school year a few white children were allowed to come into the classroom for part of the day. When Ruby began second grade the following September, the protestors had disappeared and she was in a regular classroom that included several other African American children. She was dismayed, however, to find that Mrs. Henry was no longer at the school. That summer, expecting their first child, the Henrys had moved to Boston. Their son Charles was born there, to be followed by Christopher and Courtney. Barbara Henry returned to teaching during the mid-1960s, and was active for many years as both school secretary and president of the Parents' Council at Roxbury Latin School, from which her three sons graduated. In 1996, she and her former pupil, now Ruby Bridges Hall, were finally reunited on a special episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. They remain close friends today.

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Portrait of Bernard Lafayette

Bernard Lafayette is a veteran of the civil rights movement, an educator, ordained minister and leading authority on nonviolence.

A native of Tampa, Bernard Lafayette moved to Nashville in 1958 to enroll at American Baptist Theological Seminary. He soon joined a group of fellow students attending workshops in nonviolence organized by James Lawson in partnership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Beginning in 1959, Lafayette and other young activists (including John Lewis, Diane Nash and James Bevel) launched a series of sit-in demonstrations to desegregate lunch counters and businesses in downtown Nashville. The following year, he helped to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In May 1961, after a bus carrying the first contingent of Freedom Riders was fire-bombed in Anniston, Alabama, he and other Nashville students volunteered to continue the rides. When their bus arrived in Montgomery, they were attacked by a mob and Lafayette was badly beaten. Subsequent intervention by the White House and Justice Department secured protection for the riders as they continued on to Mississipi. In Jackson, however, Lafayette and other participants in the Freedom Ride were arrested and he spent more than 40 days in Parchman Penitentiary.

Bernard Lafayette became director of the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962, paving the way for the historic voting rights march in Selma three years later. In 1964, he experimented with the use of nonviolence in a northern city, going to Chicago to direct the American Friends Service Committee's Urban Affairs Program. In 1967, he moved to New York City to coordinate the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. The following year, he was appointed by Martin Luther King Jr. to be national director of the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. Bernard Lafayette was with Dr. King in Memphis on the morning of his assassination. In their last conversation, King told him that the next phase of the movement was "to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence."

Since that time, Bernard Lafayette has dedicated his life to teaching Kingian nonviolence strategies for conflict resolution and reconciliation, working with churches, police departments, street gangs, and in schools with students of all ages. He has also helped to establish nonviolence programs in other countries, including Colombia, South Africa, Nigeria and Cuba.

Earning his Ed.D. from Harvard, he has been a faculty member at Columbia Theological Seminary and Alabama State University, where he was also dean of the Graduate School. From 1992-99 he served as president of American Baptist College, his alma mater. He has also served as director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, director of the Peace Education Program at Gustavus Adolphus College, and chair of the International Nonviolence Executive Planning Board.

Dr. Lafayette is recipient of the 2012 National Freedom Award from the National Civil
Rights Museum. He is currently serving as Distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Excerpt from The Children by David Halberstam:

Bernard Lafayette, having worked in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of the pioneer SNCC group, finally decided to head back to Nashville in the spring of 1962 to continue his education…. Of all the original Nashville group, Lafayette was the easiest to underestimate. If everything about his close partner, James Bevel, seemed designed to make others, particularly white people, as uncomfortable as possible, then everything about Lafayette was the opposite; he seemed to put other people, no matter what their backgrounds, at ease. Socially he was relaxed and nimble. If he was at war with the segregated environment, then he was in no way at war with himself. He did not, on the surface at least, have the fire of Diane Nash, the obvious intensity of Bevel, and the singular steadfast, rock-of-ages quality of Lewis. On the surface he appeared almost carefree. But the commitment was there, and it was deep and it was driven by religious faith. Little Gandhi, an impressed Jim Farmer had nicknamed him after they had spent a few days in a Mississippi prison together. It was Lafayette who, when some of the other Freedom Riders had been reluctant to give up their mattresses for the right to sing freedom songs in Parchman, had argued in favor of surrendering the mattresses. Mattresses were things, he had argued, one more way that the authorities retained power over them. If need be, you had to will yourself to overcome the dependency upon comforts. Lafayette had willed himself to find the contour of his body in the concrete of the jail cell, so that it would eventually feel comfortable, and finally it became true, he did create the contour of his body in concrete, at least in his mind. Though it was nothing more than an illusion, it had allowed him to sleep in Parchman.

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Portrait of Judy Richardson

Judy Richardson is a veteran civil rights activist, documentary filmmaker and educator. As a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, she worked on projects throughout the South: in SNCC's national office in Atlanta, in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, in Alabama and Southwest Georgia. Ms. Richardson subsequently ran the office for Julian Bond's successful campaign for the Georgia House of Representatives. She also organized a residential "freedom school" which brought together young people from civil rights struggles in both the North and South to talk about common concerns and strategies.

In 1968, Ms. Richardson and a number of former SNCC workers organized Drum & Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C. It opened one month after the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and soon became the largest African American bookstore in the country. A publishing house followed-with offices in Washington and Tanzania, East Africa, for which she became its children's editor. During the 1970s, she was involved in several independent projects, including directing a study of racism in Black children's books for the Howard University School of Education.

Judy Richardson began her film career in 1978, working with Blackside, Inc. on the 14-hour Emmy Award-winning PBS series, Eyes on the Prize. She served as content advisor and researcher for the first series, as Associate Producer for the second series, and as Education Director for the full Eyes on the Prize series. She also co-produced Blackside's Malcolm X: Make It Plain. Ms. Richardson later moved to Los Angeles where she worked on PBS television programs for young people and organized a multi-ethnic training program for new actors. In 1982, she returned to New York (having been born and bred in Tarrytown) to become Director of Information for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.

More recently, Ms. Richardson was a Senior Producer with Northern Light Productions in Boston. With Bestor Cram, she produced/directed the one-hour PBS documentary, Scarred Justice, on the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina. She also produced all the videos for the National Park Service's Little Rock Visitor Center, focused on the 1957 school desegregation struggle by the Little Rock Nine. Her other Northern Light productions include Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters, a two-hour special for the History Channel; two pieces for the New York Historical Society's acclaimed Slavery in New York exhibit; and From Slavery to Freedom, an overview of the history of slavery in America, for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Judy Richardson co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, published by University of Illinois Press in October 2010. It includes the memoirs of 52 courageous women on the front lines of the 1960s Southern Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Richardson has also authored numerous academic articles and lectures nationally about the Movement, its history and values and its relevance to issues we face today. Since 1990, she has conducted professional development workshops for teachers on the Civil Rights Movement, using selections from Eyes on the Prize and other Movement-related films.

Ms. Richardson attended Swarthmore College (which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2012), Columbia University, Howard University and Antioch College. She is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brown University.

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Portrait of Sally Rogers

Sally Rogers is a nationally renowned singer-songwriter and a master teaching artist in public schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A vibrant presence in the folk music world for more than three decades, she accompanies herself on guitar, banjo and mountain dulcimer and is equally adept at captivating audiences of adults and children.

As a songwriter, her first "keeper" was a tribute to her grandmother, entitled Lovely Agnes. It was written for Agnes' 92nd birthday and Ms. Rogers never intended it to go further. However, it was immediately picked up by Claudia Schmidt and sung on A Prairie Home Companion. This resulted in a personal invitation from Garrison Keillor to perform on his nationally syndicated radio show. She appeared more than a dozen times on the program, which launched her performing career. Her travels have since taken her to Europe, China, Hungary, Poland, England and Scotland, and across the United States.

Sally Rogers has released thirteen albums, as well as several collaborative projects with other artists. In the Circle of the Sun received the Best Folk Album of 1982 award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. Her 1987 album, Closing the Distance, recorded with fellow singer/songwriter Claudia Schmidt, was voted by many public radio stations as one of the ten most popular albums of the year. Ms. Rogers reached a new audience with her first children's recording, Peace by Peace, in the spring of 1988. Piggyback Planet: Songs for a Whole Earth, received the 1990 Parents' Choice Gold Award. What Can One Little Person Do? won the 1993 NAIRD Award for Best Children's Recording and a second Parents' Choice Gold Award.

In recent years, Sally Rogers has spent much of her energy teaching young people to write their own songs, often learning about their communities in the process. She frequently participates in in-school residencies where she empowers students to collect local oral histories. Then they create songs based on the stories they collect. Her Songs of the Heritage Corridor CD includes pieces she was commissioned to write based on primary source documents, plus the songs written by students at elementary schools in Connecticut.

As a master teaching artist for over 25 years, Sally Rogers is a firm believer in integrating curriculum through the arts. She has worked in public schools around the country and has seen how struggling students are transformed by the introduction of arts-based learning, bringing new meaning to their studies. She is currently developing an innovative music program at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Ms. Rogers is currently an adjunct faculty member with Lesley University's Creative Arts in Learning Masters Degree program (from which she earned an M.A. in 2007). She is also a past president of the Children's Music Network, an organization that brings together all those who work with children: teachers, performers, songwriters, pre-school providers, health care workers, parents and kids themselves. She has found this network to be an invaluable resource for great songs as well as great teaching ideas.

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Portrait of Carole Boston Weatherford

New York Times best-selling author Carole Boston Weatherford is an award-winning author of books for young people, ranging from poetry to biography, nonfiction and historical fiction. Born and raised in Baltimore, she was dictating poetry to her mother by age seven. Her father, who was a high school printing teacher, had his students set the poems in type onto index cards for class exercises-the first time that Carole would see her work "in print."

After graduating from American University she started a fellowship in public administration. At the same time, she was continuing to write. It was only after one of her poems, "I'm Made of Jazz," was published in a local magazine, that she seriously considered becoming an author. Leaving the fellowship behind, she switched to a program in publications design, earning an M.A. from the University of Baltimore. She worked for the National Bar Association and as a freelance publicist and journalist while pursuing her literary career in her spare time.

By the 1980s, now married with two children, Carole Weatherford enrolled in a master's level creative writing program at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro-the location of the historic 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. Although she had entered the program writing poetry for adults, she became more interested in writing historical fiction and poetry for children. Her first book, Juneteenth Jamboree, on the celebration of Emancipation in Texas, was published in 1995.

Over the years, Carole Weatherford has written more than three dozen books for young readers, exploring family stories, fading traditions and the freedom struggle. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, was a Caldecott Honor Book; Becoming Billie Holiday and Before John Was a Jazz Giant were both Coretta Scott King Author Honor books; Birmingham, 1963 received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the Jane Addams Children's Literature Honor; The Sound that Jazz Makes won the Carter G. Woodson Award from National Council for the Social Studies; Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins and Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People both won the North Carolina Juvenile Literature Award. The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights is one of her more recent titles.

Carole Boston Weatherford is a professor at Fayetteville State University, teaching courses in creative writing and children's literature. In 2010, she received the North Carolina Award for Literature.

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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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