On June 2, 1970, while some of my white classmates whooped in victory, I felt wrecked upon learning that George Wallace, Alabama’s infamously segregationist ex-governor, would serve another term in office.
The 1969–1970 school year, the one in which black and white kids in the small Alabama town of my childhood began attending school together for the first time, had already revolutionized my eighth-grade worldview. As a Spanish-speaking immigrant, I held membership in one of the Deep South’s tiniest minorities, giving me a unique perspective on desegregation’s watershed moment—and indeed, of several other key events in the civil rights era. In fact, my “otherness” had prepared me for the radical undoing of the status quo, and unlike many of my white classmates, I was ripe for the collapse of social barriers between the races.
I grew up 27 miles from Selma, the site of intense civil rights activism that culminated with Bloody Sunday, one of the century’s most infamous confrontations between police and African-American protestors. My graphic memoir recounts my family’s experiences against this monumental backdrop. And now, also drawing on personal history, I have written a children’s book, My Year in the Middle, which centers on the blossoming courage of a Latin-American sixth grader navigating the challenges of school integration and the gubernatorial campaign that followed in its wake.
After the battle for voting rights, nothing threatened the white establishment like public school desegregation. It came in two phases. I was in fourth grade when, during phase one, my class received its first black classmate. But everybody knew this was only the beginning. Many Alabamians reacted to the looming change of the next phase—full desegregation—with fear and revulsion, as evidenced by massive white flight to so-called segregation academies.
Taking full advantage of this explosive moment, Wallace reentered politics and snatched his party’s nomination from Gov. Albert Brewer. During the lead-up to the June runoff, the Wallace machinery distributed doctored photos that insinuated cooperation between Brewer and black militant groups and suggested interracial trysts by members of his family. I was in eighth grade, but I remember it well.
Drawing on these still-intense emotions, the idea for my children’s book was born in 2012. As I plowed through its many drafts, President Obama’s second term in office slowly ticked by. I loved researching the historical basis for the story, using resources like Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers, and calling on memory to fill in psychological realities, as well as many of the era’s vintage touches.
Then something happened that I could never have foreseen: current events began to echo themes and passages from My Year in the Middle, as many of the Trump rallies I caught on television bore a chilling resemblance to a Wallace rally featured in the novel, complete with naked appeals to racism. In my alarm, I find myself in good company. Nationwide, people from all backgrounds are fighting for a more just and equitable future for all Americans. But though I am buoyed by their activism, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair. How did we allow our nation to slip backward? How can one person—or even many—fight against sweeping cultural acceptance of racial injustice? And how is it possible to maintain a modicum of inner calm at a time like this?
Then I had a tiny epiphany, and it originated from the weirdest of places: my own novel’s characters. Although strict racial codes mandated that school life should be split down the middle by race, a few of the kids in my story develop a case of stubborn defiance. And now, as I’d never done before, I felt the power of their refusal to accept a divided classroom. I saw that they weren’t trying to change the entire world; they merely addressed the injustices in their own environment. But those actions counted. And they went further, forming meaningful relationships across the color barrier—and that counted, too. Finally, they didn’t wait helplessly for the broken pieces of their racist surroundings to be resolved before giving themselves fully to their personal passions.
In other words, they gave their dreams permission to take flight. They opened their hearts to becoming more fully themselves, no matter the shape of the world. In their 12-year-old wisdom, I found a blueprint for surviving—and thriving—through these troubling times.
Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of My Year in the Middle and the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, a graphic memoir. She was born in Argentina and grew up in Alabama, where she lives.