Taking a Stand for Freedom

Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776

As we cherish our freedom
we believe in freedom for others.
~ President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Every year, I try to step back and reflect on the promise of freedom that this nation celebrates today.   Throughout my long teaching career, this “mission question” has guided me:  How can we as educators help children and youth live with courage and hope in an imperfect world?  Learning to advocate for yourself and others is, for me, central to successfully navigating this imperfect world.  Today reminds me of the importance of speaking out for freedom.

Sometimes it feels like we’re not making much progress.  But then I always seem to come across a book that throws out a lifeline of hope, introducing young readers to people — both real and imagined — who take great risks, go to extraordinary lengths, and overcome tremendous obstacles to stand up for themselves and others.

In honor of this national birthday, I’ve selected six books that explore different ways that people of courage have worked for freedom.  Rather than more traditional links with Independence Day, these stories introduce people who have taken stands for freedom in a variety of ways and across times and places both near and far.

  Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom by Tim Tingle; ill. by Jeanne Rorex Bridges.  Coming out of the Choctaw oral tradition, this story shows how small, personal acts of courage can result in powerful opportunities for freedom.  In the 1800’s, the Choctaw people lived as a sovereign nation across Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River from the lands of plantation owners and their enslaved workers.  The river formed a formidable border between bondage and freedom.  Any slave who crossed it would remain free by law, but the river was a dangerous obstacle.  The Choctaw had bridged the Bok Chitto with a series of stepping stones hidden just below the water’s surface and unknown to others.  When a young girl crosses the river from the Choctaw side, she sets in motion a series of events that lead to an enduring friendship and a daring escape for a slave family facing devastation.

 As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom by Richard Michelson; ill. by Raul Colón. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel grew up on different sides of the world, yet both suffered the agonies of bigotry: King, in the segregated South of the US; and Heschel, in Europe during the Holocaust.  Each willingly shouldered the responsibility to promote peace, freedom, and social justice despite the challenges and dangers they faced.  Their journeys intersected in Selma, Alabama on March 21, 1965 when Heschel answered King’s call for people to support the Civil Rights movement.  This book brings to life a lesser-known story of allies such as Rabbi Heschel who joined the fight for voting rights for African Americans.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull; ill. by Yuyi Morales. In the same year that Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel marched for voting rights, many others worked for social justice in all corners of this country.  This biography of Cesar Chavez focuses on the struggle of farmworkers in California to earn better pay, conditions, and respect for their hard work.  Central to Chavez’s legacy as a fighter for social and economic freedom is his determination to accomplish goals nonviolently, even though he and his colleagues were targets of violence.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice for Burma by Whitney Stewart.  The subtitle of this biography of a remarkable woman says it all — the power of speaking out for what is right in spite of the great cost.  Aung San Suu Kyi joined Burma’s democracy movement with no idea that she would become a leader of her people, spend many years under house arrest, win a Nobel Peace Prize and wait for 21 years to receive it — all because she raised her voice for justice.  We are currently living the epilogue, as last month Suu Kyi was finally able to go to Norway to accept the Peace Prize.  She continues to work for her country as a member of Parliament and tireless advocate for freedom.

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki; ill. by Dom Lee.  There are many familiar stories of people who took great risks to help others during the Holocaust.  Among the most moving to me is that of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who defied the Nazis and even his own government to hand-write visas allowing thousands of Jews to escape Lithuania and make their way to freedom. The story is told through the eyes of Sugihara’s young son, Hiroki.  In the afterword, the real Hiroki Sugihara gives us a glimpse into both the enormity of the impact this man had on those he saved and the immense cost he and his family paid for reaching out to strangers with such great courage.

Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney; ill. by Brian Pinkney. Finally, let’s circle back to our consideration of the true meaning of Independence Day.  Benjamin Banneker stands out as an early advocate for freedom and equality, yet many young readers have never heard his name.  He was a tobacco farmer in the late 1700’s whose mind was filled with questions about the workings of the natural world and the skies above his head.  He taught himself astronomy to explore answers to his questions, and he wrote an almanac based on his calculations of the cycles of the moon and sun — all remarkable accomplishments.  But as a black man, Banneker faced many obstacles in his efforts to get the almanac published.  He knew that other black people who were not free like he was wouldn’t be able to benefit from his work. He was moved to write a letter to Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and at the time of the letter, Secretary of State.  In the letter, Banneker critiqued Jefferson’s call for freedom for the American colonies while also owning slaves who were not — and would never be — free.  Although it took nearly another century for slavery to end, Banneker established himself as an articulate voice for justice.

I hope you celebrate this important holiday by reading one of these books — and please share other titles in the comments below.  Happy Independence Day!

Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold, was published by Clarion Books in December, 2011.  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.

Katherine Schlick Noe