'The Children's March' in Sarasota will recount the civil rights movement from a young perspective
Joseph Holt, artistic director of Choral Artists of Sarasota, says the Florida premiere of the performance "is an important piece to present at this point."
On March 5, Choral Artists of Sarasota will be performing the oratorio, “The Children’s March.”
It's based on the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
The children were organized in secret, with radio disc jockeys helping to spread the word for what they called “D-Day.” Children, some as young as 6, brought their toothbrushes, knowing they might be arrested.
In May 1963, they marched from Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, facing down fire hoses, police dogs and officers armed with batons.
Joseph Holt, the artistic director for Choral Artists, said adults couldn't participate, because "they'd be in danger of losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their lives."
Holt said Andrew Bleckner wrote “The Children’s March” for the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade, and he’s been trying to put on this Florida premiere since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also feels Bleckner’s work is especially timely now, because of what Holt describes as the “seeming whitewashing of African American history.”
“And he (Bleckner) and his co-author, Charlotte Austin, a librettist, they decided they needed to have an historical overview of the United States prior to 1963. So, the first third of the work has some unusual settings,” Holt said.
That includes Supreme Court rulings, and elements from the U.S. Constitution like the Emancipation Proclamation.
Holt added that the Philadelphia-based Bleckner is “actually Jewish, but he has been influenced heavily by African instruments, African sounds. And he incorporates various percussion instruments in this along with piano, as well as familiar spirituals and gospel pieces.”
And although the work is in the style of an oratorio, it weaves the history throughout the music, and will be narrated by Journalist and civil rights trailblazer Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
She helped to desegregate the University of Georgia and remembers reporting on the Children's Crusade.
“So 1963 was a very revealing time, but a very inspiring time because I have seen students that are going through the same things. And so young people were taking things into their hands that could bring about a more perfect union," said Hunter-Gault. "And while they were exposed to a lot of unpleasantness, and in some cases worse than that, death, they kept on keeping on. And so it was a part of my journey, as a journalist, to record what was going on, and to try and share it with people everywhere, not just in the places where it was going on."
”I want to make this point, because I keep hearing people generalizing about Black people and white people," she added. "But the civil rights movement in this country, and the time when those young people that we're talking about were demonstrating for us, there were white people who died for us — Viola Liuzzo, Michael Schwerner. There's so many I can't even name them.”
Both Liuzzo and Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in southern states.
“In spite of this … dark subject matter, the kids at the end, they prevailed,” Holt said. “And it was also videotaped, and seen on television, not only in United States, but around the world. Everyone was horrified. So, we now see, a year later the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And then ultimately, the Voting Rights Act of ’65.”
Choral Artists of Sarasota will be joined by Sarasota Young Voices and Lumina Youth Choirs of Tampa, along with soloists. The performance is Sunday, March 5th at Church of the Palms in Sarasota.