The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Where It All Goes Down
Flint, Michigan and Birmingham, Alabama—1963
The Watsons as we know them hail from two very different parts of the country. Dad's family was all born and raised in Flint, Michigan, while Momma's family is from Birmingham, Alabama. Talk about a difference in location. Especially in 1963. Right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Flint and Birmingham may as well have been in different countries.
North vs. South, Watsons Style
Flint and Birmingham are juxtaposed from the very beginning of the novel. As the Watsons sit shivering in their house in Michigan, Momma reminds everyone how warm it is back home in Alabama. Pull out your maps, folks. Michigan is in the North = cold. Alabama is in the South = warm. But that's just the beginning.
It's clear that Momma misses her home, and being so far away makes her feel as if everything is better down there: the air is supposedly cleaner, the pace of life is slower, the people are friendlier—you name it, and it's better down south. Dad, though, seems relieved that his family is living in Flint instead of Birmingham. Why?
North vs. South, America-in-1963 Style
When Momma starts talking about how great things are in Alabama, Dad is quick to point out the not-so-nice side of things—like the "Coloreds Only Bathrooms" (1.26). Wait, the what?
Maps away. Time to grab your history books (or the Shmoop history page), and turn to the section on the Civil War. Remember how the North was fighting the South over slavery and state's rights? Remember how we almost became two separate countries over that? Well, the Watsons might be living a hundred years later, but some of that same conflict was still lingering about.
Discrimination was everywhere in 1963, but it was much more prevalent and violent in the South. Sure, slavery was abolished, but many Southern states had adopted Jim Crow laws, rules about what African Americans can and can't do. We're talking laws like where they're allowed to sit or eat or go to school or use the bathroom. Pretty crazy, right?
We know you're a precocious Shmooper, so we're here to give you a little more background on how all this nutso stuff came to be:
• 1861-1865: The U.S. fought a civil war between the North and the South. The whole thing was very complicated, but the major issue was slavery.
• The North won the war, so slavery ended. Lots of people in the South were pretty angry about this.
• African Americans were no longer slaves, but they weren't exactly considered equal citizens either. Prejudice and discrimination were everywhere, but it was especially bad in the South where slavery was such an important way of life.
• Many Southern communities adopted Jim Crow laws, a special set of laws just for African Americans. These laws made sure that African Americans wouldn't have the same rights and privileges as everyone else. Most of the laws were about keeping things separate because many white people didn't want to go to work or church or school with African Americans. They didn't even want to eat in the same restaurants or use the same bathrooms or sleep in the same hotels.
At this point you're probably thinking, "Hold on, we elected a black guy to be the president and just a few decades ago, he wouldn't have been allowed to use the bathroom?" It sounds crazy, we know, but it's true. Thankfully we've come a long way since then, and here's how:
• African Americans and many others who believed in equal rights for everyone started trying to do something about it.
• By the 1950s, the fight for civil rights was gaining momentum and making the evening news, and though the progress was painstakingly slow, things began to change.
• One of the biggest changes was the decision to integrate schools, meaning all kids would go to the same school regardless of their race.
• This is when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a bunch of other activists were on the scene, doing their thing. People were marching and protesting all over the place.
Sometimes, when you hear about these stories, the movement sounds pretty cool and exciting, like it might have been fun to be at a sit-in or a protest rally, but the whole thing was serious business. This is where it gets a little scary.
• Some people (especially in the South) were really angry about all the changes.
• There were many instances of people using violence to retaliate or scare activists out of protesting. Lots of people were beaten or killed for standing up for equal rights.
• This was no joke. It was extremely risky to be part of the Civil Rights Movement, whether you were white or black.
• There were places in the South where just being an African American was risky because of all the violence and anger directed at them.
• At this time, Birmingham was considered the most segregated city in the United States and was the site of some of the most violent attacks of the Civil Rights Movement.
Okay, so here we are, in 1963 in Birmingham. (If you want more on this era and the heroes who fought for equal rights, check out Shmoop's guide to the Civil Rights Movement.)
One in the Same
Life in many parts of the North was completely different. As a result, the Watsons seem mostly sheltered from racism and violence in Flint, at least as far as we know. But when they go to Birmingham, they end up right in the middle of one of the most violent race-driven events of the Civil Rights Movement: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Yep, that's right—that actually happened.
But wait a second. Before you decide that Birmingham and Flint are complete opposites or that Birmingham is all bad, take a look at Kenny's first reaction:
Birmingham looked a lot like Flint! There were real houses, not little log cabins, all over the place! And great big beautiful trees. Most of all, though, there was the sun. (11.53)
Why do you think the author included this passage? Maybe we're supposed to think long and hard about how, at our core, we're not all that different. Black or white, Flint or Birmingham, everyone's human. Plus, Kenny and Byron both learn some important lessons in Birmingham that bring them closer as brothers, and that makes Birmingham a pretty special place for the Watsons.