Today I’m pleased to share an inspiring, important book: THE TEACHERS MARCH!: How Selma’s Teachers Changed History by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Charly Palmer.
Sandra and Rich are seasoned nonfiction writers who take research very seriously. So I asked them to share how they found out about this significant event, their rigorous research for the book, and the urgency of of oral history (something they know a lot about!)
Here’s Sandra and Rich’s insightful journey:
You never know where your research will lead you.
Ours led us to a pew in Selma’s Brown Chapel one quiet morning a few years back. We were in the process of writing a book about civil rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, who had slept some nights in those pews when he first arrived in Selma in 1965 as a rebellious seminarian. Church historian Joyce Parrish O’Neal provided us with vital information about Jonathan, and about the pivotal mass meetings and voting-rights marches that had originated at Brown Chapel. Then she mentioned that her mother, Lula Parrish, had risked her job and her life by marching with more than 100 other Black teachers in January 1965.
We tucked that bit of information away while we completed Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights. Then we contacted Ms. O’Neal again, and we returned to Selma, recognizing the heft and the responsibility of writing about this crucial but little-known teachers’ march.
Reverend F.D. Reese, the science teacher and pastor who had organized the march, welcomed us to his church and shared his crystal-clear memories of the march and his efforts to coax those brave teachers to participate.
Their worries were palpable. And justified.
We spent more time with Ms. O’Neal, who described her mother’s bravery and her own fear on the day that her mother left for the march: “She hugged us and didn’t say much. But she was thinking ‘will I have a job when I get back?’ and “will I get back?’”
Coach and teacher Lawrence Huggins—assigned to the front of the line of marchers with Reverend Reese—described to us the blows of officers’ nightsticks as they tried to turn back the teachers.
The teachers’ march was a triumphant success. The ever-humble Reverend Reese proudly told us that the teachers were “like great giants” that day. They were the first group of professionals to march en masse to the county courthouse to demand their voting rights, and they inspired other groups to follow suit. Most of all they inspired their students, who took to the streets (and often to jail) during the spring and summer of 1965.
“It was the march that gave impetus to the movement,” Coach Huggins said, adding that the voting rights campaign had reached “a stalemate until then.”
The teachers’ march propelled the movement and was followed soon after by the Selma-to-Montgomery efforts (including the thwarted Bloody Sunday march in which John Lewis and many others were beaten by troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge). Those marches—led by Lewis and by Martin Luther King Jr., quickly overshadowed the teachers’ march. Coach Huggins participated in the Bloody Sunday march, and Reverend Reese and Ms. O’Neal did triage at Brown Chapel. Each of them was involved in the eventual march from Selma to the state capital.
We’re very proud that our new picture book, THE TEACHERS MARCH!: How Selma’s Teachers Changed History, is bringing long-overdue attention to the heroic educators who set things in motion.
During one of our visits to Selma, Reverend Reese invited us to attend a Sunday service with Congressman John Lewis, who happened to be speaking at Reese’s Ebenezer Baptist Church while we were in town. Reese and Lewis are both gone now. Most of those 105 teachers have passed away, too, reminding us of what we refer to as “the urgency of oral history.” Recording those stories directly from the participants is an honor and a responsibility that we take very seriously.
Many of the foot soldiers of the 1960s civil rights movement have reached their 80s or beyond. Interviewing them has been rewarding and humbling.
As journalists we can be very persistent. We must be accurate when chronicling this vital history. Phone calls, personal visits, and emails ensure not only that we get our facts correct, but also that we gain deep insights into the people behind those facts. Our recent books would not have been possible without their generous recollections and wisdom. And their kindness.
Watch the inspiring book trailer for THE TEACHERS MARCH! (Reverend Reese speaks midway through the book trailer.)
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Book Giveaway: Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win your own copy of The Teacher’s March!
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Investigative journalists Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace are a husband-and-wife team who write books together and as individuals. They are the co-founders of The Daily Good, a nonprofit dedicated to literacy, food security, inclusion, and health in their city of Keene, NH. Sandra’s picture book Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery, was presented the 2019 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction by the National Council of Teachers of English. Rich’s many novels include award winners such as Wrestling Sturbridge and Perpetual Check. Visit them at sandraneilwallace.com, richwallacebooks.com, and DailyGoodNH.org.