The Civil Rights Movement and the Power of Teen Girl Activists

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

I was fascinated from the moment author Heather E. Schwartz first mentioned a group of black teen girls protesting for their civil rights in Georgia in 1963. These teen girl activists were locked up in a Civil War-era stockade in Leesburg, Georgia. What stood out the most to me was their incredible strength and resilience. Heather’s book Locked Up for Freedom: Civil Rights Protesters at the Leesburg Stockade tells the story of these teen activists for readers in fifth grade and above.

Q&A with Heather E. Schwartz

How did you first find out about the teen girl activists who were held at Leesburg Stockade?

Years before books were written about them, I’d read brief newspaper articles about two brave teenage girls who were part of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1951, Barbara Johns led a school-wide walkout to protest school segregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia. And in 1955, Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montogomery, Alabama.

I was struck by the idea that their stories had been largely forgotten, possibly because they were young people. We know much more about the adult leaders and protesters involved in the Civil Rights Movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

After books came out about Barbara Johns and Claudette Colvin, I started to think about all the other young people who deserved recognition. I went online and began searching for information and came across a magazine article about the teen girl activists held at Leesburg Stockade.

What sort of research did you do to learn more?

One of the first things I did was reach out to some of the women who were held there. I was able to find email addresses and wrote to them asking if they would be willing to talk with me about their experiences.

I also purchased photographer Danny Lyon’s book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which was mentioned in the magazine article I’d read, and I reached out to him. He’d printed affidavits, which are sworn statements some girls made and signed just after their release. I tracked down the sources of those and other affidavits online.

I learned as much as I could by phone and computer, then made a trip to Americus, Georgia, where I met with several women in person. I was able to tour the city and see the buildings and streets where activists gathered. I also visited the Albany Civil Rights Institute, which had an exhibit devoted to the girls.

Locked Up page 45
This page from Locked Up for Freedom includes a photo Danny Lyon took of Mattie Crittenden (left) and Shirley Green at Leesburg Stockade.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of researching this book?

I think what surprised me most was these girls’ almost casual courage. They knew protesting was dangerous and would land them in jail, but they did it anyway and at such a young age. Then after they were released from Leesburg Stockade, many kept up their activism. When they spoke about it to me, many mentioned how traumatizing it was to be held in those conditions, but no one said they regretted protesting.

Why do you think this event isn’t better known?

History tends to get boiled down to a few key events and a few specific names. The rest are lost to time. There are so many young people who took a stand and suffered for what they believed in during the Civil Rights Movement. It would be impossible to name them all. But in a way, I feel like the girls at Leesburg Stockade represent all of those young activists.

In what ways do you think this story is relevant for tweens and teens today?

The fight for freedom and equality for all is clearly far from over. This story shows tweens and teens that they can have real power in that fight. If they’re brave enough, they can speak up and act out against injustice. And that will make a difference, whether by changing laws, changing minds, or simply bringing more people together to fight for a better world.

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