The Fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day: A Foot Soldier’s Story

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day – written by Kathlyn J. Kirkwood, illustrated by Steffi Walthall
Versify, 2022

As we celebrate the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, Kathlyn J. Kirkwood’s memoir in verse offers a reminder that this acknowledgement of King’s legacy was far from inevitable. Like every other success of the movements for civil rights, it was the result of struggle, both collective and individual.  In the book’s foreword, author and activist Jacqueline Woodson pointedly describes the ignorance which surrounds so much of our history.  By rooting the story of King’s achievements and the day which commemorates them in her own personal connection to them, Kirkwood educates and inspires young readers.  She reaches them at their own level, never patronizing in tone, but understanding that they may open her book with little prior knowledge of the events which informed her choices.  Personal anecdotes, primary source documents, and carefully presented explanations of civics, all add up to an unforgettable story.

Kirkwood’s memoir begins in 1968, when the movement to win equal rights for Black Americans had been underway for some time.  The author is a high school student, reporting on the parallel celebrations in Memphis of the “whites only” Cotton Carnival, and the Cotton Makers Jubilee Parade for those excluded by race from the city event.  The casual cruelty of legally sanctioned racism is far from abstract in Kirkwood’s self-portrait. A young woman full of excitement and enthusiasm about her academic and social life is the same person who is increasingly motivated by anger and frustration.  She will turn both those parts of her character into a vehicle for change, and convince readers that she is not exceptional. They can do the same in their own lives.

The book teaches, not from a distance, but up close.  Kirkwood interpolates primary sources documents into her poetic narrative. When adults read the selection from King’s words about getting to the mountaintop but not arriving at the promised land, they will be filled with a sense of foreboding.  Kirkwood knows that young people may not share that historical context, but they will come to share it in her book.  When a young Kathlyn hears of King’s death, the drama is not invented. When she commits herself to activism and convinces her parents to allow her the freedom to demonstrate in spite of their fears, her words ring true. Kirkwood even includes the handwritten letter in cursive, pleading with her mother about this issue: “I guess if I don’t go I’ll never feel right.”

A crucial component of Kirkwood’s book is her emphasis on King’s complete vision of racial and economic progress for Black people and for all Americans who had been marginalized by the poverty.  King fought for the sanitation workers of Kirkwood’s city, and opposed the war in Vietnam.  He was vilified for his courageous stand on these issues, as he called for societal change in ways that threatened entrenched power.  Kirkwood lines encapsulate the endless obstacles that seemed to hold back change:

      No economic justice for the poor.

      No economic bill of rights

      for those seeking and needing to work,

      for those disabled and unable to work,

      for those needing fair and decent housing.

But not stopping there, she patiently explains the interaction between protests and the legislative processes that eventually brought victories, although so much remains to be changed.

In one section, entitled “My Life Was Full,” Kirkwood chronicles how even a career, marriage, and motherhood could not completely fulfill her vision for the future.  Instead of a linear process leading to success, her story admits the ups and downs of her mission, with the support of family, friends, teachers, and even Stevie Wonder.  Readers will share her rage at overtly racist members of Congress and her resounding “HALLELUJAH” when a bill is passed formalizing the new holiday.  She identifies herself, and everyone who worked for that goal, as “foot soldiers,” a crucial term of reference in this story of lesser-known individuals committed to making a difference through persistent action.

Steffi Walthall’s black and illustrations match the inventiveness of Kirkwood’s narration. Walthall creates starkly dramatic interpretations of Kirkwood’s personal story, and of events in the civil rights movement. Her use of shadow to emphasize character and setting captures the impact of every actor, from the picture of Kirkwood’s father at work in his barber shop, to the iconic image of National Guardsmen menacing striking sanitation workers. Guns with bayonets extend into the center of the scene, crossing the path of undeterred demonstrators bearing signs stating, “I am a man.” Walthall’s work is an inextricable part of the book’s impact.

The book includes extensive backmatter, making it perfect for use in the classroom, but also for discussion with parents and caregivers.  Not every foot soldier has either the gift or the inclination to tell her story; readers are fortunate that Kathlyn Kirkwood has told hers.

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