RHONDA LYNN RUCKER
WELCOME TO BOMBINGHAM
(Pelican Publishing Company, 2019)
What People Are Saying . . .
Welcome to Bombingham is a page-turner—an unflinching account of one Birmingham teenager’s struggle for justice in the face of vicious racial hatred, at a time when doing right could get a person killed. This gripping story will raise eyebrows, quicken hearts, and awaken minds.
~ Charles E. Collyer, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, Chair of the Education Committee of the NAACP Branch 7014, and co-author of Nonviolence: Origins and Outcomes, 3rd ed.
A powerful reading experience. Welcome to Bombingham is set in the historical reality of early 1960s Alabama. The exciting plot follows a young person’s evolution from teenage anger and frustration at oppression and personal tragedy to a deeper understanding of the possibility of change. Especially helpful is the author’s afterword, reminding readers of Birmingham’s factual civil rights history and the role played by young activists.
~ Candie Carawan, coauthor of Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs
Welcome to Bombingham rings true on every page, bringing into focus a time both distant past and yesterday, a place so starkly real you can smell the smoke, where courage met hatred, determination stared down cruelty, light drove out darkness, and young people stood on the front lines of change.
~ Pamela Zappardino, Ph.D., Nonviolence & Civil Rights Educator; Co-Director, Zepp Center for Nonviolence & Peace Education
Rhonda Rucker’s devastating, gritty portrait of young African Americans struggling to resist fear and confusion to affirm values of justice and community against violent white supremacy in Birmingham, Alabama, gives us a powerful insider view of the ‘children’s crusade’ and the 1963 Southern civil rights movement.
~ Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Sanitation Strike and Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign
In the style of a brilliant lyrical writer, Rhonda Rucker has combined characters -- their qualities and feelings -- the setting, and the times into a fantastically readable and intimate account that follows the spirit of Baldwin’s Another Country! Welcome to Bombingham is a masterful blend of news coverage and creatively fictionalized details of the modern Civil Rights Movement; voiced as the narrative story of Earl B; who, with other courageous souls, made America another country.
~ William Turner, Distinguished Professor (Retired) of Appalachian Studies, Berea College, KY, coeditor (with Edward Cabbell) of Blacks in Appalachia
Welcome to Bombingham is an earnest and gripping story about the struggle for racial and social justice through the eyes of an African American teenager living in one of the most violent cities for blacks in the South. It makes you feel angry to the point that you want to explode inside, just like the main protagonist, but still manages to hold on to the themes of hope, courage, and right action. Structured as a compelling mystery (who will crack the Klan’s code and prevent the next bombing?), this book would make a great addition to a class reading list for high school students learning about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Rhonda Rucker’s commitment to telling the stories of the Civil Rights Movement is not new. As part of the Sparky and Rhonda Rucker folk duo for the past three decades, she has sung the songs of the movement to audiences of all ages across the country. In 2017, she wrote a book for children, Make A Change, describing the desegregation of lunch counters in Knoxville, TN, department stores, drawing on Sparky’s own boyhood experiences. She draws on that family connection again in Bombingham, since some of Sparky’s family members experienced what it was like first-hand to be black in Birmingham during the 1960s. The book has the careful research of a secondary source, as well as the vividness and authenticity of an eye-witness account.
The narrative follows an African American teenager, Earl B., through some of the most traumatizing losses of his young life, from the violent death of his mother in the bombing of their family home, to the shattering of his college aspirations, to living in perpetual fear of Klan attacks. Throughout all this, the people in his life still expect him to carry on like a normal teenager, doing homework, sports, and household chores. In a sense, the reader is being asked to treat all these enormous setbacks for Earl B. as mere bad luck, suppressing their growing moral outrage the way that so many black Birmingham residents were expected to simply accept unjust treatment and suffering. It’s unsustainable and makes the reader doubly invested in a just resolution.
Rucker is careful to represent a wide range of opinions and reactions on the part of the African American community, from those workers not challenging the status quo out of fear of losing their jobs, to practitioners of the nonviolent protest movement, to followers of the more militant philosophy of Malcolm X. The story takes place in late 1962 through 1963, when black and white Americans did not yet know what tactics would achieve lasting success. This is the time of Martin Luther King’s visit to Birmingham as well as the youth protest that Bull Conner disrupted with dogs and firehoses, events which are both woven into the story. The “Author’s Note” at the end provides key context, including the fateful bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—causing the death of four little girls—that happens after the events of the novel. This reminds us that, even when stories come to a close, both injustice and the movement towards justice still continue.
~ Stacey R. Graham, Ph.D. - Research associate professor, Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University
By Tina Chambers, Chapter 16, a publication of Humanities Tennessee, March 12, 2020
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.
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.