BY JAZELLE HUNT
NNPA NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Over the course of a 32-year teaching career, Jacqueline James noticed a glaring problem—Black history was slowly but surely being ignored in the schools where she worked. When it was outright dropped from her required curricula, she got creative, using Black history calendar factoids for penmanship lessons.
“Now, Black history is watered down to them teaching about [Martin Luther King Jr.] in January, then they don’t even do anything else,” says James, adding that teachers today are under so much pressure, they don’t have time to truly teach.
“Even now…I really think children need to know who helped him. Because they think Martin Luther King did everything from free the slaves to help LeBron James. It’s crazy.”
Now retired, she’s on a quest to re-educate the nation’s Black children. In 2009, she founded JAX Publications to write, self-publish, and market a children’s historical non-fiction series of books, called Friends of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The sepia-toned hardcovers feature key players in the Civil Rights Movement who supported and worked with Dr. King. They are written at a middle school level, and each book has accompanying lesson plans and enrichment activities for teachers. James’ lesson plans are also in line with the Department of Education’s Common Core educational standards, which have been adopted by almost every state.
And she’s enriching her own life, too. Through her company, JAX Publications, James is able to avoid the steep percentage cuts of being carried in a bookstore, which typically takes 40 percent, or working with a publisher who might want to own the rights to her work.
But more importantly, the project allows the self professed “historical-accuracy fanatic” to get up-close and personal with the figures she so admires. Take C.T. Vivian, the subject of the first book in the series, for example.
“When I was 17…I saw this man standing, talking to this White racist sheriff. He wouldn’t stop talking, and the [sheriff] hit him and knocked him down. And then he got right back up and kept talking. They picked him up and took him to jail,” recalls James, now 66. “Then I saw the same scene years later on [PBS documentary] “Eyes on the Prize,’’ and I said, ‘That’s the same man from those years ago!’”
Forty years after that, James was a guest at an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala. march and Vivian was in attendance.
“And I went and introduced myself, saying, ‘You don’t know me but I’ve known you for years. I’m glad to meet you now,’” she says. “We shook hands and talked, and I said, ‘Somebody needs to write a book about you….’ And he said, ‘Well, here’s my number. Call me when you get back to Atlanta and we’ll sit down and talk about it.’”
Since then, she’s become acquainted with other civil rights luminaries such as Dorothy Cotton, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and many more (even becoming good friends with the latter’s daughter, Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester).
“You only hear about Martin Luther King in Birmingham, you don’t know about what this man (Shuttlesworth) did 89 years before that. Just talking to him—” she says, expressing how excited she was to get to know him. “And then the next year he was saying, ‘You know I’ve got a brain tumor, right?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, brain tumor?” And he goes, “Well that’s from all those White people beating up on my head for all those years.’”
A few months after that conversation, Shuttlesworth began having strokes. And a few years after that, his wife called to ask James to rush-deliver his book in the series. A few hours after reading the un-illustrated, unpublished manuscript, Shuttlesworth died at home.
“They had a chance to read it together and that just meant so much to me,” James says. “He couldn’t speak by then, but [his wife] said she could tell he was really pleased.”
Today, the Friends of Martin Luther King, Jr. series consists of 28 titles, including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Dorothy Height. Her books can be found in Georgia’s DeKalb County library system; in a few schools in Michigan, DeKalb County, Atlanta, and Durham, N.C. and can also be purchased directly from her website, www.jaxpublications.com. In addition to adding to the series, she’s also seeking financial partners to launch a children’s magazine, and dipping her toes in publishing other like-minded authors’ works.
“When I ask students, do you know any of [Dr. King’s] friends…one student told me, ‘I didn’t know he had friends.’ What was sad was when another student asked me, ‘Was Harriet Tubman his friend?’
“We’re the only race on the face of the Earth that would let other people tell our history, let other people take our history, and tell us what we can teach. I don’t take anything from Martin Luther King – he has contributed the utmost. But, we have more history than that.”
Jazelle Hunt is NNPA’s Washington correspondent.