Friday, April 13, 2018

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Jonah Winter)



Author:  Jonah Winter

Illustrator:  Shane W. Evans

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Narrative Non-Fiction Picture Book

Publisher Summary: 
Celebrate the momentous law enacted fifty years ago—the voting rights act of 1965—with this powerful and moving picture book.

What if you had to pass a test or answer impossible questions like “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” before you were allowed to vote?

Or imagine being forced to pay a special tax before you could cast your ballot.

And how would it feel to be chased by an angry mob—by people in your own town—just for trying to vote?

This is the story of Lillian’s family—and so many other African Americans—who, after generations of discrimination, triumphed over injustice thanks to a law that protected every American’s right to vote.

First Lines:
A very old woman stands at the bottom of a very steep hill.  It’s Voting Day.  She’s an American, and by God, she is going to vote.  Lillian is her name. 

It’s a long haul up that steep hill.  It’s a long haul when you’ve been alive for a hundred years. It’s a long haul when you’ve lived the life that Lillian has—and walked so far in her shoes.  When Lillian looks up, it’s more than blue sky she sees.  She sees history. 

Historical References and Story Overview
As Lillian walks up a steep hill to vote, she recalls the struggle her family went through before African-Americans finally had the right and freedom to vote.  Though the story is specific to her personal and familial experience, it parallels the trials millions endured.

It begins with her great great grandparents standing on the slave block being sold in front of the courthouse she is walking toward.  Next, her great-grandpa Edmund is a slave picking cotton from dawn to dusk.  He does not have the right to vote or to do much of anything else until after the Civil War and the 15th Amendment is passed—giving all male citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.  With pride, Edmond votes in his first election.

Just 20 years later, her grandpa Isaac is prevented from voting due to a poll tax.  Lillian, also, recalls her uncle Levi who is forced to take a “test” with ridiculous questions like how many bubbles are in a bar of soap or what are the names of all 67 state judges.  He is turned away because he fails to answer such questions. 

She sees a brave young woman with her family trying to register after the 19th Amendment is passed.  They are chased away by an angry crowd. Another time, she is turned away because she cannot write down on a blank sheet of paper a section of the Constitution.  The woman in this memory is Lillian, herself. 

A funeral procession is shown for a man who dies in a peaceful protest as he seeks justice—and the right to vote.  Then, she remembers the civil rights protesters led by Martin Luther King, Jr. as they march and pray and dream of justice.

Finally, Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  His famous words are memorialized, “Every American citizen must have equal right to vote…there is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Evaluation:
I could not wait to register to vote! As soon as I turned eighteen, I did. I was away at college when the next presidential election came around, but I voted via absentee ballot. I don’t recall my family talking much about politics or voting.  Nevertheless, I knew it was vital to register, to stay informed, and to vote.

However, only between 50-60% of the eligible voters exercise this vital civic duty and inalienable right—a right that millions fought and died for.  During her walk Lillian sees a young man and asks if he is going to vote.  He says, “Yes, ma’am.”  She tells him, “You better.”  Throughout the story, Lillian exemplifies a strong sense of dignity and pride at being able to vote, which will resonate with people of all ages as they learn the immense hardships she endured for that freedom.

Framing the story around both Lillian’s present day voting act and her journey up a hill is an effective technique.  Despite her advanced age and the physical hardship of the climb, she does not quit—even when the hill gets steeper.  At one point, she looks up to the top of the hill and wonders if she will make it.  As she becomes weary from the climb, she keeps going “footstep by footstep.” Lillian epitomizes perseverance and strength to not allow challenges to deter her. 

Furthermore, I love the metaphor of the climb.  On a literal level she is climbing to the top of the hill to vote. On a metaphorical one, it demonstrates how African Americans like her have had an uphill battle to secure this fundamental right.

One of the most powerful contrasts is between the singing birds and smiling people of the present and the burning cross and angry mobs of the past.  In another instance, the metaphors of light (sun) and darkness are used.  These and other images help build an emotional appeal for participating in this vital community act. 

The illustrations focus on Lillian and her visions of the past, depicted as ghost-like figures—struggling and fighting for justice.  She realizes that because of all the sacrifice of the men and women before her, it is her duty to vote and to let her voice be heard. She thinks to herself, As long as I still have a pulse, I am going to vote.

I highly recommend Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights At of 1965.  This powerful and poignant story provides vital context and history in the struggle for the right to vote.

A VERY Biased Author's Note
Unfortunately, the author adds historically biased and untrue information as a resource for educators and parents in the author’s note.  He moves from historical remembrance to propaganda device.

First, Winter states that white voters in the south left the Democratic Party for the Republican Party due to racism.  This Southern Strategy myth is just that, a myth.  By including it in his book, he is not so subtly stating:  Republicans are racist.  Watch HERE for a short video about on this myth (includes a link under the video of facts and sources).  

Second, the author mixes facts with politics when discussing voter suppression.  No one denies that the awful literacy tests and unfair poll taxes that some politicians in southern Democratic strongholds used for the purpose of denying the vote to African-Americans were unjust. However, Winter uses the issue as a springboard to undermine the voter ID issue. He states that voter ID laws are meant to “deny many Americans a basic right—a right for which so many courageous people fought and died.”  This emotionally manipulative argument equates the aforementioned tests and taxes with the voter ID requirements conservatives advocate for today. The evidence used is the difficulty that “the poor and the elderly” suffer to get an ID.  He encourages “a new generation” to “rise and continue” the fight against this unfair practice. 

Once again Winter depicts Republicans as racist, in this case, for wanting a voter ID law. The only reason anyone wants this law is to prevent voter fraud.  Everything from flying on a plane to cashing a check requires an ID.  No one claims the airline or the bank is attempting suppression by requiring an ID. In addition, I do not know anyone—Republican or Democrat—who would not help a poor or elderly person get a needed ID.  Nor are there any groups or government entities standing in the way of the poor and elderly getting an ID. In conclusion, the voter ID movement of today has no connection to the Jim Crow Laws of the past.

What is more unfair—people voting illegally or everyone being provided with an ID and an opportunity to vote once? 

Both parties want fair elections. Both parties want equality and justice. Painting one party as racist monsters standing in the way of those things undermines an otherwise worthwhile picture book. 

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