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.
By Melanie Tucker, The Daily Times, Maryville, TN, January 20, 2020
She’s been sharing her message of racial equality and justice for all for decades, as a folk singer with husband Sparky Rucker.
Rhonda Lynn Rucker, who resides in Maryville and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, has discovered another way to affect change and get her message out these days — by putting pen to paper and writing historical fiction.
Her latest delves back into the 1960s when the town of Birmingham was getting bombed on a regular basis as blacks came together in the name of civil rights and whites lashed out. “Welcome to Bombingham” is her story of how one teenager’s tragic story melds with others in town. What resulted was the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963.
The book, measuring 272 pages, was written for young adults, Rucker explained. The main character, Earl B., is raised by his mother and grandmother until a fateful day in 1963 when the family home is bombed and Earl B.’s mom is killed.
He sets out on a course for revenge, as other blacks in Birmingham are looking at ways to fight the injustices of segregation and the bombings that also have included black churches. Along the way, Earl B. meets other young people who gravitate toward joining the movement with non-violent sit-ins and boycotts. Others want to become more militant. Earl B. ultimately has to choose his tactics one day when a Ku Klux Klansmen lays dying after trying to set another deadly fire.
Does Earl B. save him or let him die like the KKK did when they killed his mom?
This period in history is pivotal in the civil rights movement, Rucker explained. The actions of thousands of young people who marched in protest of their city’s treatment of blacks ultimately led to desegregation. These young people were jailed and even sprayed with powerful water hoses, hit with batons and threatened with police dogs.
Footage of what had happened reached across the nation and the world, causing an outcry. City leaders agreed to desegregate businesses and release the young people.
The struggle would continue, however; four little girls were killed by bombs placed by white supremacists at 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963.
Small in stature, big on ideas
Rucker said she wanted to focus on young adults because they are the heroes in this story she desperately wanted to tell.
“One of my main things with this was showing how much power kids can have,” the author said. “They were the heroes, and I wanted to show that.”
She pointed to Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has caught global attention for her environmental passion. “She has shown us what one person can do,” Rucker said. “Not everybody can be a leader like she is, but followers are important, too.”
There were a lot of followers in the Birmingham movement, she pointed out. “What would have happened had those thousands of people not shown up, marched and were put in jail?”
While “Welcome to Bombingham” is fiction, there are places, incidents and outcomes that are real. Rucker interviewed people who were there, like her brother-in-law and his mother. She gave Rucker insight into what it was like to make ends meet as a black family in those days.
“They were under so much pressure,” Rucker said. “That is why the whole campaign was failing. The adults wouldn’t go out and march with Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Many were afraid of losing their jobs or being the victims of retaliation.
It was activist James Bevel who got the children’s crusade off the ground. Rucker said King initially was against the idea and wasn’t there on the first day.
“The stakes were high for the adults,” Rucker said. “It was a smart thing to enlist the kids. They were tired of it, too.”
Growing up fast
The storyline in “Welcome to Bombingham” shows the growth of Earl B. and how he learns to make choices that he understands will have lasting effects. He takes readers on a voyage of many emotions — from fear and anger to frustration, hopelessness and finally, hope.
The civil rights movement has been a slow process, this author said. There’s a saying that it’s more of an evolution than revolution. And while she sees definite improvement from her childhood, there is still work to do to see that all people are treated as equals, she explained.
Voter suppression decades ago involved handing a black person a pen and a piece of wax paper and asking them to write their name if they wanted to vote, Rucker said. Blacks driving through Mississippi couldn’t stop after dark, not even to go to the bathroom.
The strides that have been made and the history behind them need to be told to young people, she will tell you. Her story is historical fiction, meant to stir curiosity and some digging by readers to learn more.
Rucker is now working on another historical fiction novel for young adults set in Louisville, Kentucky, during the Great Depression.
Her first historical novel for young readers was “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet.” It was a finalist for the 2014 Crystal Kite Award. Her children’s book, “Make a Change,” was based on her husband’s experiences as a youngster in Knoxville while protests were emerging. Sparky, who is African American, shares what it was like when boycotts and sit-ins came to his hometown.
Sparky and Rhonda have toured for decades, using storytelling and music to tell stories of our country’s painful past and its triumphs as well.
As she talked by phone on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Rucker said these huge struggles people faced have not gone away. There are still racial injustices and issues of inequality and voter suppression. That means the fight moves on.
“We can’t take our freedoms for granted,” she said. “We learned during the civil rights movement freedom is a constant struggle.”
Get the book
"Welcome to Bombingham" was written by Maryville resident Rhonda Lynn Rucker and published by Pelican Publishing. It is the story of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and how young people played a pivotal role. The book is for young adults, but the historical fiction is a guide for all ages about this volatile period. It is available online at Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble and from the author, who tours sharing music with husband, Sparky Rucker.