A play that depicts Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s heroism as a teenager seeks to inspire a new generation.
By Retta Blaney
Six young people walk on the stage of the Riverside Theatre in New York singing “Woke Up this Morning (with My Mind Set on Freedom).” At the end, one girl steps forward to address the audience. “By the time I was 15, I had been in jail nine times,” she says. It’s an attention-grabbing beginning, but while this is a play, it’s not make-believe.
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March portrays the struggles, courage, and final triumph of Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest person to make the complete journey to Montgomery in that historic march. Lowery’s book by the same name, which she wrote with Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, has been adapted for the stage by actor, author, and teacher Ally Sheedy.
Lowery learned early what being black in the South in the 1950s and ’60s meant. The oldest of four, she lost her mother when she was seven because a white Baptist hospital refused to give her mother blood after the birth of her last child.
“‘Negro blood’ had to be sent for from Birmingham, 96 miles away by Trailways bus,” she says.
By the time the blood arrived, her mother had died — “15 minutes too late,” as her father described it. “He said that till the day he died.”
By 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. was rallying people for the right to vote, Lowery was more than ready to join the effort. Because black Southerners could lose their jobs for trying to register, organizers recruited children. These children were then arrested. The production shows historic black and white photos of young children lined up for transport to prison camps.
“We were pretty sure our parents didn’t know where we were,” Lowery says of her experience. She was taken by a school bus to one prison camp for three days and then another for three more before protest leaders found out where the children were and returned them to their homes. Singing “We Shall Overcome” while imprisoned helped the children beat down “the fear and the hate and the racism.”
While it had been a frightening experience, Lowery remained committed. She knew she had a role to play.
“White people could fire black people whenever and however they wanted. That’s why civil rights leaders needed us children to march. They couldn’t fire us because we didn’t have jobs.”
As bad as the prison camps were, Lowery and her fellow protesters had not yet experienced the worst abuse. That would occur on March 7, the day of the group’s first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which became known as Bloody Sunday.
“I told myself I’d be okay because there were so many of us,” she said, but then came tear gas and beatings.
“I’d never really been beaten,” she said, but she was that day, resulting in 28 stitches in the back of her head, with an additional seven over her eye.
Spurred on by Bloody Sunday, an even larger crowd — close to 3,000 — gathered on March 21 under King’s leadership to march more than 50 miles to Montgomery. Most had to return to Selma after five or six miles because only 300 were permitted to march the whole way. Lynda was one of the 300.
“I was just one day short of my 15th birthday,” she said.
This time they crossed the bridge, with no state troopers or people waving Confederate flags and “calling out those ugly words.”
And on the morning of March 25, they entered Montgomery.
“I had really done it,” Lowery said. “I was there. I fell down on the ground and just cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t stop crying until I let it all out. And then it was gone.”
It’s a powerful story, passionately portrayed. Besides the projected images, the storytelling is enhanced by gospel hymns and songs of the civil rights era performed throughout by the cast, headed by Damaras Obi as Lynda, with Brian Baylor, LaRon Grant, Queade Norah, Chanté Odom, Claxton Rabb, and Renée Reid. The director is Fracaswell Hyman.
The four performances in January launched a national tour for Turning 15. It will play in Millersville, Penn., and Little Rock in March for Women’s History Month before a more extensive tour this fall.
Riverside Church, on the King holiday weekend celebrating his 90th birthday, was an appropriate place to begin. The civil rights leader delivered five sermons at the church, which for decades has invited leaders from around the world to speak on social and political issues. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” sermon there.
The Saturday and Sunday matinees at the church’s theater opened with performances by the 55-member Riverside Inspirational Choir. After the play on each of those afternoons, senior minister Amy Butler held discussions with Lowery and others from the civil rights movement. On Jan. 20, they were joined by a member of the congregation, Emily Anderson, who worked for desegregation while in college in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1963.
Butler asked them to speak about the importance of churches in the civil rights movement.
“The church was a safe place to train, a good place to eat, and we knew we were loved and cared for at the church,” Lowery said about Selma’s Brown Chapel, where her movement was based. “The church was like a second home.”
Butler wanted to know if they thought the church was sufficiently “showing up” now.
Anderson said Riverside has consistently stood for justice, but “what we need is to really look at how … we engage the community in the struggle. There’s an intractable persistence of poverty. How do we attack that? The church needs to find a way to bring everybody else along.”
Lowery said that when she was growing up, churches shared their people’s pain. “I think churches have gotten away from that in a big way. They don’t talk about the political climate that’s out there now. I don’t think churches encourage people to speak up.”
Butler asked what this story says to those who were born later.
“This is my life,” Lowery said. “This is what I lived. It’s telling young people, You have a voice too. I didn’t realize it would be this meaningful. What we did back then was what we were supposed to do.
“I get emotional in parts of the play. Sometimes I cry from beginning to end. Fifty-four years later, a lot of things still hurt. We haven’t changed what we need to change for humanity. We went to jail day after day and it took us three months to get the Voting Rights Act passed. You can’t start and stop. You’ve got to be consistent.”
Retta Blaney is an eight-time award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.