As the daughter of civil rights figure and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, Paula Young Shelton found herself surrounded by many an activist during her childhood in Atlanta. Her fond recollections include spending time with her “Uncle Martin,” Martin Luther King Jr., and being carried on her father’s back during the Selma to Montgomery March as African Americans fought for equal voting rights. She captures and elaborates upon these moments in her children’s book, “Child Of The Civil Rights Movement.” She was in town recently with the Hands On Black History Museum to read her book to St. Louis-area school children.
Shelton was born in New York City, but she and her family moved back to Atlanta when she was a toddler. Upon moving back, the Youngs quickly took up arms in the Civil Rights Movement, and Shelton’s father was one of the group of chosen individuals in Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. “I think we knew what he was doing, I don’t think I fully understood it,” she says, as she was just a child during the thick of her father’s involvement. “I did not know that he might be beaten – my mother wouldn’t tell us that – I did know that he would sometimes be in jail but my vision of jail was like Mayberry RFD. I had no sense that this was a really dangerous place. So they really did shield us from a lot from the dangers of it.”
Evenings in their Atlanta home were spent serving home-cooked meals and strategizing with fellow activists and organizers like Hosea Williams, Dorothy Cotton and Whitney Young on what the next plan in the Movement would be. It was nothing for Shelton to wake up in the mornings and see new faces in her living room. “I really felt very much like this was my extended family. I do not remember our house being empty,” she says. “There were always people there, and there would be people camping out on our floors. There was always just this very warm sense of community around me, and even if there were people that I didn’t know well, I always felt very comfortable and welcomed in the environment.”
Later on, she recalls sitting around the television with her family as they witnessed the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In writing her book, Shelton felt it was important to both humanize Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when she was 7 years old, and state that he movement didn’t just revolve around his actions.
“Two of the major goals for me in writing this book were, one, for children to see Dr. King as a human being. That he’s not just a 60-foot statue on the Mall or the name of the boulevard in the black part of town, but that he was a real person, a really caring individual,” she says of King. “We have hundreds of books written about Dr. King, but he could not have done anything without the help of the thousands of people who helped to organize the March, who participated in the March, who sacrificed getting on the buses and the Freedom Rides, and who really put themselves out there and risked a lot to have their voices heard.”
Now an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., Shelton’s book strives to communicate to both children and adults about the standing importance of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I really do want children to understand how we got to where we are, that it just didn’t happen, and I think that will hopefully make them appreciate and value some of those accomplishments a little more, and they won’t take so lightly the right to vote," Shelton says. "You have to exercise that right if you want for things to continue to get better and change and evolve for everyone.”
She says that she and the book, which was written in 2010, get a lot of attention during Black History Month in February, but that it is her hope to carry on the dialogue about the contributions of African Americans well beyond the end of the month.
“It will be a wonderful day when Black history is woven into the history of America. The Civil Rights Movement is a critical part of American history, period, and when we can just teach history and just teach about all of the folks that made America great at the same time without separate, distinct, groupings, but just ‘Let’s teach American history and let’s include everyone that was there at the time, and their contributions.'”
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