In preparation for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this coming Monday, the entire fifth grade of the South Orange Maplewood School District read the same memoir, and on Thursday got to hear directly from its author. Linda Blackmon Lowery wrote her illustrated memoir,Turning 15 On the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March, about her experience as the youngest person to march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King.

The January 16 event, held at South Orange Middle School, had students selected from each elementary school asking prepared questions of Lowery about her experiences marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to secure the right to vote for African Americans, and spending her teenage life and beyond as a civil rights activist.

Blackmon started by singing a civil rights song to the hundreds of fifth graders assembled, which got their attention while they clapped along and cheered. She then kept their attention with a provocation: “I often tell the story of the N word. Now I’m the only one who can say the word n*****,” at which point the children whooped in shock. “Listen to my story,” she said, calming them. “I’m going to tell you what that word did for me, did to me, did to my family” and her community, she said. “Therefore I know, after you get this story, you will not be using it…[nor] let nobody else use it around you.”

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Lowery, now 69, then told the story, which she said is not in the book, of when her father took her to town in Selma when she was nine years old to buy Sunday shoes. In the shoe store, “a little girl younger than me asked my father, ‘what you want, n*****?’ And I looked up at this tall black man, and his head was down and his shoulders were slumped.” She said the details of the day are burned in her memory forever, and that the students should never use the word on someone else or themselves. The children sat absolutely silent with rapt attention as she relayed the story.

Lowery, who still lives in Selma today, interacted gracefully with the student panel, answering questions such as “What would you tell your younger self,” which she answered by saying that she would tell herself not to stop pushing for change after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. After voting rights were secured and integration came, Lowery said, “we closed our eyes and we relaxed, because in many ways we thought we had arrived.” But so many factors have pushed back on the progress made, and she sees now that the work is never finished.

Another student asked, “How did your experience during that time impact the person you are today?” Lowery’s answer: She learned about hatred at an early age, “and I knew I didn’t want to grow up being like some of the people that hated me and other people that looked like me…. I grew up with a highly religious sense and spiritual sense” and because of that she wanted to choose a positive outlook toward others. She said she also learned perseverance from both her grandmother and her civil rights participation, during which she went to jail multiple times and was there during the Bloody Sunday protest.

The grade-wide reading project was a result a grant from the Achieve Foundation to the district’s Parenting Center and C&I department to fund their new initiative, "One Book One Grade." While the students were reading the book, parents and guardians received periodic updates and students were sent home with flyers that provided a summary of topics, discussion questions, and activities that they experienced in their classrooms, so they were able to extend the discussion from the school to home.