Just in time for the Martin Luther King remembrance on Monday, J. Patrick Lewis has a challenging new poetry book, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. The title captured my attention and held me: Mr. Lewis is including me as a civil rights leader. Each of us. All of us. By including his readers, the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate connects us to seventeen well-known and lesser-known leaders, prompting us to ask how we can be a part of this ongoing movement. In addition to Gandhi, Mandela, and Coretta Scott King, we read poetry about ordinary people (that’s us) who did extraordinary things (that’s our challenge) to lead people to honor civil rights for everyone.
Shaping our connection, five artists have illustrated this book: R. Gregory Christie, Meilo So, Jim Burke, John Parra, and Tonya Engel. Awash with color, detail, movement, and emotion, the frameworthy paintings encourage the reader to think introspectively.
You can read out loud to your classes about “The Slugger,” Josh Gibson, who hit more than 800 home runs but wasn’t allowed to play in the white Major Leagues. Even though he was posthumously voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, it was a recognition that Mr. Gibson never enjoyed.
Emmett Till’s mother is here. Mamie Carthen Till insisted that her son’s casket remain open at his funeral, a memorial for this boy who had spoken to a white woman, for which he was beaten, mutilated, and killed. In “The Innocent,” we are there at the church, outraged because “Justice did not have one word to say.” Tonya Engel’s painting depicts a few of the fifty thousand mourners who paid their respects that day.
Do you know the name Sylvia Mendez? California schools were segregated up until the 1940s. Mexican children were not allowed to attend whites-only schools. Sylvia’s mother and father pressed a lawsuit demanding that their children be allowed to go to the 17th Street Elementary School in Orange County. The case of Mendez v. Westminster was an important ruling in the battle for national desegregation. California was the first state to adopt desegregation. Lewis’ poem focuses on the ordinary girl who made the extraordinary effort to withstand the derogatory treatment she received at her new school.
This book is an extraordinary experience encouraging each of us to “be the change” by honoring those who made their beliefs known before we had the opportunity to follow their lead. I am moved … and I believe you, your children, and your students will be, too.