It was my grandmother who first took me to hear Dr. King—that's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was back in 1963, when I was just thirteen years old. The church was packed. When Dr. King began to speak, everyone got real quiet. The way he sounded just made you want to do what he was talking about. He was talking about voting—the right to vote and what it would take for our parents to get it. He was talking about nonviolence and how you could persuade people to do things your way with steady, loving confrontation. I'll never forget those words—"steady, loving confrontation"—and the way he said them. We children didn't really understand what he was talking about, but we wanted to do what he was saying.
"Who is with me?" Dr. King asked, and all of us stood up, clapping. By the time we left that meeting, Dr. King had a commitment from me and everyone else in that church to do whatever it would take, nonviolently, to get the right to vote.
At that time I was already in the movement—the civil rights movement. I was mostly following the high school kids around—especially Bettie Fikes. She had this beautiful voice and I wanted to sing like her. Bettie and her friends were trying to integrate Selma by going to whites-only places. They sat at the whites-only Dairy Queen and the lunch counter at Woolworth's department store. They tried to sit downstairs at the movie theater. (Blacks could only sit in the balcony then.)
They said I couldn't take part in these sit-ins because I was too young, but I had a job to do. My job was to go for help. I was called the "gopher," because I always had to "go for" someone's mama when Bettie and her friends were put in jail.
That all changed on January 2, 1965. That's when Dr. King came back to Selma for a big mass meeting at Brown Chapel. We called it Emancipation Day because it was all about freedom. There were about seven hundred people there, and I was one of them. It was an awesome thing, a fearsome thing to see so many people. They had come from all around. And they had to travel some dangerous roads to get to Selma—little country roads where the Ku Klux Klan was riding around.
The music was fantastic. By then we had formed a freedom choir, and I was part of it. I got to sing in the choir with Bettie Fikes, and you know how I felt about that.
When Dr. King walked in, everyone stood and cheered. He talked about the vote and how we would get it. He told us we must be ready to march. His voice grew louder as he continued. "We must be ready to go to jail by the thousands." By the end he shouted, "Our cry . . . is a simple one. Give us the ballot!"
From Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery. Text Copyright 2015 Elspeth Leacock, Susan Buckley, Lynda Blackmon Lowery. Illustrations Copyright 2015 PJ Loughran. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA.