Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 Book Poster Image
Vivid photos, clear text bring heroic protest to life.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Provides a detailed, day-by-day account of the infamous Freedom Ride of 1961, one of the formative moments in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Gives historical context of the protest, stemming from racist policies and Jim Crow laws in the American South. Back matter includes an author's note, biographical sketches, bibliography, source notes, and index. 

Positive Messages

The Freedom Riders set out to demonstrate that segregation is immoral, that discrimination is illegal, and that fairness and equality should be promised to all Americans, regardless of race.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The racially mixed Freedom Riders risked arrest and physical violence at the hands of angry mobs in order to protest against injustice and racist customs in the Jim Crow South. Their perseverance, self-sacrifice, and commitment to nonviolence was truly admirable and courageous. One of the Freedom Riders was John Lewis, who would go on to become a U.S. Representative and author of the graphic novel memoir series March.

Violence

There are some brutal descriptions of mob violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan against the Freedom Riders, including the use of bats, metal pipes, and smoke bombs intended to terrorize and intimidate. There are also a few photos of badly wounded Riders who suffered vicious attacks when they attempted to ride through Alabama.

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What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Larry Dane Brimner's Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is a strikingly designed day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of one of the most well-known moments of the civil rights movement, accompanied by dozens of black-and-white photographs. The text and pictures contain some images of violent terrorism and racist mobs, though the inspiring story the book tells is one of courage and perseverance in the face of bigotry and hatred. Back matter includes an author's note, biographical sketches, bibliography, and source notes. This book earned Brimner the 2018 Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished informational book for children, awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the the American Library Association.

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What's the story?

TWELVE DAYS IN MAY: FREEDOM RIDE 1961 details the harrowing journey of a racially mixed group of activists committed to the cause of social justice who ride a Greyhound Bus across the segregated South at the height of the civil rights movement. Launched as an effort to integrate interstate bus facilities and expose racist customs and policies in the South that violated federal antidiscrimination laws, the Freedom Riders set out from Washington, D.C., headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, knowing full well that they will encounter resistance and racism along the way. At each stop, the brave passengers attempt to use the facilities traditionally designated as "whites only" in order to challenge the illegal separation of spaces and services based on race, forcing confrontations with employees and vigilantes trying to enforce Southern "tradition." The farther they ride, the more violence they face, eventually leading to a horrifying series of incidents in Alabama in which the buses are attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a hate group long known for terrorizing and targeting African-Americans and their sympathetic allies. Though the original buses are unable to continue due to the damage caused by the mob, the Freedom Riders eventually make it to New Orleans, becoming powerful symbols of the power of nonviolent protest and inspiring hundreds of others to take up the cause and launch Freedom Rides of their own. 

Is it any good?

Well-researched and highly informative, the book serves as an excellent overview of a pivotal moment of one of the most important movements in American history. Larry Dane Brimner, accomplished author of several civil rights titles for middle and high school students, does a great job of highlighting the difficult decisions and courageous actions of his heroic subjects, while the vivid photographs bring the story to life.

The violence and hatred depicted in Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 are hard to swallow, especially when illustrated so nakedly by the haunting pictures, but they contain an important truth about America's dark past, one that should not be forgotten. Brimner's straightforward, no-frills writing style is bleak at times, but overall he does justice to the story and the 13 men and women who risked life and limb to fight for integration and equality, helping to carry on their legacy and share their message with the next generation.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the history of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws explored in Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961. What is the legacy of these policies and the hard-fought effort to abolish them?

  • Why has nonviolence been an important tactic of protest movements throughout the world? Can you think of some examples of this type of protest that have helped bring about meaningful change?

  • How do the photographs in the book help the story come to life?

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