Chapter 16
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A World in Black and White

Maryville author Rhonda Lynn Rucker’s new YA novel examines racial conflict in 1960s Birmingham

“It was a bitch growing up in Birmingham. Unless you were white. And Earl B. Peterson wasn’t white,” writes Maryville author Rhonda Lynn Rucker in her new young adult novel, Welcome to Bombingham. Rucker shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and unchecked violence that plagued the black community in early 1960s Birmingham, Alabama — the site of as many as 50 bombings over the two decades following World War II.

Photo: Pam Zappardino

Earl B. is a high school senior and talented football player whose world is shattered when his home is bombed, killing his mother and injuring him and his grandmother. Because he is black, Earl B. receives no response from law enforcement, cursory medical treatment, and, despite obvious symptoms of what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, little attention from school administrators, friends, and family members.

Instead, Earl B. struggles on his own to control his grief, rage, fear, depression, and thoughts of revenge. When he picks up a note dropped by a Klan protester at a community meeting, he finds what appears to be a list of potential bombing sites and begins a quest to identify each site, warn the intended victims, and somehow find the people responsible for his mother’s death.

On every side, Earl B. hears competing voices. His math tutor, Shirley, invites him to get involved in ARC, the Alliance for Resistance and Change, but Earl B. is not sure registering new voters and holding picket signs will achieve his personal objective. The voice of Malcolm X on a radio broadcast has a profound effect: “Nobody had made him feel proud to be black before. The man’s words struck a chord deep inside him. … The new Negro didn’t feel inferior. He should be respected as a human being, no matter what color he was. The new Negro didn’t believe in turning the other cheek. If attacked, he retaliated.”

His uncle, who has suffered nearly unbearable losses due to racially motivated violence, tells him, “There are people in this world with so much venom inside, they go around destroying things and hurting other folk. One of these days, you’ll learn that them people — they ain’t worth so much as the leftover scraps in a hog pen.” Some of his friends believe it is okay to commit crimes against white people — no matter who they are — just because they are white. When Earl B. has the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak about nonviolent protest at a local church, he understands yet a different point of view: “A heavy feeling came over him, and he sensed that he’d been missing out on something momentous.”

No matter which voice he decides to listen to, Earl B. is running out of time because his enemies are on his trail. From threatening phone calls to kidnapping to physical assault and even lynching, they will stop at nothing to promote their hate-filled agenda. Meanwhile, Earl B. is confronted with his own failing grades, a football scholarship in jeopardy, and competition for the girl he likes — all the usual high school drama, on top of his community’s desperate fight to exist in peace and freedom and his own crushing despair. “The bombing had changed everything,” he says. “Even the world looked different to him now, as if life had gone backward, from a color movie to a black-and-white one.”

An author’s note places the story of Earl B. into context with historical events, including the Birmingham Children’s March, Dr. King’s writing of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls, all of which contributed to changes that Birmingham — and the nation — would undergo in years to come.

Rucker and her husband, James “Sparky” Rucker, who is African American and a longtime civil rights activist, perform as the Grammy-nominated folk duo Sparky and Rhonda. In Welcome to Bombingham, she draws from his experiences and those of his family members to create a compelling portrait of cowardice and brutality met with courage and dignity and the heartbreaking cost that so many ordinary people paid along the way.

A World in Black and White

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.