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We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963

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The powerful story of an eleven-year-old Black boy determined to stand up for his rights, who's pulled into the action of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.

Rufus Jackson Jones is from Birmingham, the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the most segregated place in the country. A place that in 1963 is full of civil rights activists including Dr. King. The adults are trying to get more attention to their cause—to show that separate is not equal. Rufus’s dad works at the local steel factory, and his mom is a cook at the mill. If they participate in marches, their bosses will fire them. So that’s where the kids decide they will come in. Nobody can fire them. So on a bright May morning in 1963, Rufus and his buddies join thousands of other students to peacefully protest in a local park. There they are met with policemen and firemen who turn their powerful hoses on them, and that’s where Rufus realizes that they are the fire. And they will not be put out. Shelia Moses gives readers a deeply personal account of one boy’s heroism during what came to be known as the Children’s Crusade in this important novel that highlights a key turning point in the civil rights movement.

ISBN-13: 9780593407486

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication Date: 09-06-2022

Pages: 176

Product Dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

Shelia P. Moses ( is an African American writer whose subjects include comedian Dick Gregory and the Legend of Buddy Bush. In 2004, she was nominated for the National Book Award and named the Coretta Scott King Honoree for The Legend of Buddy Bush. In 2009, her novel Joseph's Grace was nominated for the NAACP Image Award.

Read an Excerpt

My name is Rufus. Rufus Jackson Jones Jr.
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama.
The place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the most segregated place in the country.
Birmingham is the South. The Deep South! The South is in my soul.
The year that changed my life happened in Birmingham.
It was a year that changed America. Maybe the world. It was 1963.
“Segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Governor George Wallace said during his inaugural speech.
I didn’t know exactly what his words meant. I was only eleven years old. I just knew what he said was wrong. Each word that came out of his mouth made my sweet mama’s smile turn into a frown.
After the death of my daddy, Rufus Sr., hard times had taken away her joy. My mama, Tillie Jones, worked hard at home and even harder at Boone’s Steel Mill. Mama worked in the kitchen there, where the men lined up to eat the good meals the colored women cooked. Mama’s brother, Uncle Sam, was the only colored manager at the steel mill. He had a college degree, and white folks looked at him a little different than most colored folks. They showed him respect. Not enough—but more than most colored folks. They still called him Sam, not Mr. Lewis, while calling white managers “Mr. This” and “Mr. That.” Uncle Sam had to sit in the colored section when he ate lunch, just like Mama. When he entered the building, he walked in the back door, just like Mama.
One day, Uncle Sam and the other colored folks in Birmingham got real tired of back doors. They were tired of hard work and low pay, no right to vote, and their children going to raggedy schools with used books. That was when the secret meetings started.
I heard that there were going to be all kinds of protests. But it was going to be hard fighting people like Bull Connor, who was in control of the police—folks said he was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Colored folks in Birmingham feared Bull Connor like the plague. I knew about Bull Connor because I read about him in the newspaper. We could not afford the paper, but Uncle Sam passed his newspaper on to my mama at work every day, and I’d read it when she was done. My aunt Ola was always bringing me old Jet and Ebony magazines. That is how I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. My teacher, Miss Smith, told us they were important leaders. She said we were important too.
Uncle Sam agreed with them that now was the time to act. He was real smart, and so was Aunt Ola. They got married right after they graduated from Shaw University. She was a high school English teacher and fancy in the way she talked, walked, and dressed, but she wasn’t snobby about it. She and Mama were not just sisters-in-law, but they were also best friends.
All Mama’s other friends worked at the steel mill or spent their days cooking and cleaning for white people. They carpooled or walked to the white neighborhoods to earn just three dollars a day, and then they rushed home before dark. No colored woman—or man—was safe in Birmingham after the sun went down.
We lived in a place called Bull Hill. A place where the houses were all raggedy and owned by a white man named Smarty Hanks, who couldn’t have been stingier. Each house had two tiny bedrooms, a sitting area, and a small kitchen. Not one house had been painted since anyone could remember, and a lot of our porches looked like they were ready to fall down.
Everyone on Bull Hill shopped at the same grocery store, and all us kids got bused to a colored school downtown. Mama said when she was a little girl, the folks on Bull Hill had a one-room schoolhouse for the colored children. It had dirt floors and no running water.
Come Sunday morning, everyone put on their Sunday best to praise God at one of the many colored churches in Birmingham. Churches like 16th Street Baptist Church. Mama loved that church best. She sang in the women’s choir, but every now and then someone would ask her to sing at another church. She would go, but she rarely missed a Sunday at her own church.
“I feel close to my own mama and papa when I walk in the doors of 16th Street,” Mama would say every Sunday morning. Her mama and daddy died before I was born, but Mama talked about them like they were sitting on the bench right beside us. They had moved here when Mama was a little girl from a little town called Rich Square, North Carolina, to work in the steel mill. My daddy and some of his folks came to Birmingham for the same reason. Daddy said it beat working in the cotton fields.
Mama loved her mama and daddy with all her heart, and now she loves me and my sister, Georgia, the same way. I was born a couple of years before Georgia, and even though I like to tease her, she knows I love her. Georgia’s quiet and gentle like Mama, while I’m more like my daddy. Folks that knew him always say that he was a lion of a man with a fighting spirit that he left inside of me. I tried to fill his shoes the best way I knew how. But his shoes were big. And first I had to see if I could even fill the hole in my heart from missing him.
I was nine years old when my daddy fell from the ladder at the mill and died. It was just before Christmas in 1960. Uncle Sam drove Mama home from the mill that day so she could deliver the news to us that Daddy was gone. I hugged her tight on one side, and Georgia hugged the other.
Mama didn’t say another word after she told us Daddy had met his maker. She did what she always did when her heart was hurting—sing.
I can still hear her singing Daddy’s favorite song.
“Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on . . .”
She sang to the heavens as Georgia’s tiny little voice joined hers.
I never opened my mouth. I just kept squeezing Mama as tight as I could.
When the house filled up with cakes, pies, Bull Hill folks, and more tears, I ran to my room. I used my finger to write one word on the cold glass windowpane.
Daddy was the only word in my heart.

Mama had too much pride to accept help from our neighbors—or even from our family.
Uncle Sam tried to get us to move into the well-to-do Smithfield neighborhood where he lived so we’d be close to him and Aunt Ola. He even offered to buy Mama a house and let us live there, but Mama said no. She said Bull Hill was safer for us than Smithfield. Coloreds called the Smithfield area that was over on Center Street “Dynamite Hill” because the white folk would get so mad every time a Negro moved in that they’d throw bombs at their houses.
So we settled into a lonely life without Daddy, but not for long. The following year, a man named Paul Joe Peele showed up.
Mr. Paul was as dark as our potbelly stove—and he wasn’t much taller. But he was still a big man, and his muscles jumped in his neck every time he laughed. He moved back to our neighborhood from Chicago to live in his childhood home with his sister, Miss Maggie, because folks said his wife loved other menfolks. That was the gossip on Bull Hill.
Mr. Paul was good friends with Uncle Sam all the way back to elementary school, so my uncle helped him get a job at the steel mill. On Sundays after church, they’d talk in the parking lot about baseball, Dr. Martin Luther King, protesting, and stuff like that. Me and my best friends, Slide and YouOut, would hang around nearby and try to listen.
Slide’s real name was Curtis Wilkins, but we called him Slide because no one could slide into home base on the baseball field like he could. He lived next door to us with his mama, Miss Annie Ruth, and his daddy, Mr. Jack. YouOut’s real name was Ronnie Spivey, but we called him YouOut because he could strike you out in a blink of an eye. Then he would shout, “You out!” He had big dreams to be an umpire one day. We all loved baseball, and someday I wanted to write about sports and the colored people who played them.
The more I heard about the movement, the more I wanted to know. It seemed like all folks talked about these days was marching, voting, and getting off of raggedy Bull Hill. We learned a lot listening to Uncle Sam and Mr. Paul. But I also noticed that while Mr. Paul had one eye on the movement, he had the other one on my mother.
Every Sunday after church and talking in the parking lot, Mr. Paul showed up at our front door with flowers for Mama and dessert for me and Georgia.
In my whole life I had never known my mama to lie, but when Mr. Paul knocked on the door . . . the sinning started.
“Tell him I’m not home,” she whispered to me and Georgia the first Sunday Mr. Paul showed up.
“Mr. Paul, Mama said to tell you she ain’t home,” Georgia shouted from the living room.
“Well, you tell her that I’ll wait for her,” he shouted back.
“Okay.” Georgia looked at Mama and said, “You hear that?” and then went back to playing with her dolls, which were lined up as if they were her students. The dolls were all white because Mama wasn’t able to find any colored dolls in Birmingham.
Then I opened the door just wide enough to get our dessert. “Thank you for the pie, Mr. Paul,” I said real quick.
He came back the following Sunday, and every Sunday after that. After eating a slice of that week’s pie, we’d peek out the window to make sure Mr. Paul was still breathing. No matter how hot it got that summer of ’62, he’d sit in Daddy’s rocking chair and rock.
Some Sundays Mr. Paul would still be sitting there when I’d go out into the front yard to play baseball with Slide and the other Bull Hill boys.
“Why is Mr. Paul on your porch every Sunday?” Slide asked one day.
“Who knows, but Mama ain’t thinking about him,” I whispered.
I didn’t like him sitting in my daddy’s chair, but I did feel sorry for him.
Sunday after Sunday poor Mr. Paul came over to see our mama. Sunday after Sunday she would send him home. But one Sunday our mama had a change of heart and surprised us all by going to the door herself and saying, “Paul, come on in and have dinner with us.”
Mr. Paul was as happy as a tick on a dog as he rushed inside.
When Mama put dinner on the table, he looked at the food and then he looked at Mama.
“Tillie, I ate too much breakfast. Y’all eat. I will just have some pie.”
“Now, Paul, you welcome to have some chicken and collard greens. I even made some cornbread.”
“Thank you, but I should probably eat with Maggie later,” Mr. Paul said.
I was ten and a half by then, but I had enough sense to know why he didn’t eat. He could see Mama didn’t have enough food. So he smiled and ate pie while we filled our bellies.
After that day Mr. Paul came every Sunday. He started stopping by on Saturdays too so he could drop off a ham or chicken. He knew Mama liked cooking on Saturday night while she sang along to gospel music on the radio.
We relied on the radio for the news too, since our little television had stopped working right after daddy died and Mama said we couldn’t afford a new one. I secretly prayed Mr. Paul would bring us a television one day and wondered if Mama would take it. Uncle Sam had tried to give us one of theirs, but Mama refused. Her pride meant no cartoons on Saturday morning.
Soon Mr. Paul was dropping things off lots of days of the week. Mornings we would wake up and a whole mess of collards would be on our front porch. Some days a watermelon or cantaloupe would be blocking the door. Whatever Mr. Paul left, he would put a flower from the yard on top.
The flowers would change with the seasons, but not Mr. Paul. He stayed the same—except he did finally started eating with us after he had filled the icebox and the cupboards with food. Every Sunday after dinner he would stand up, clear his throat, and say the same thing. “Tillie, dinner sho’ was good. Now come sit on the porch with me awhile.” And Mama would join Mr. Paul on the porch till sundown.
One Sunday I waited and waited, but he didn’t get up from the table. Just before I swallowed my last bite of lemon pie, Mr. Paul stood up. Then he started to go down on one knee. I thought he was having a heart attack.
“You all right, Paul? Get him some water, Georgia,” Mama shouted, but Paul shook his head. He looked fine. That’s when I realized he was not having a heart attack, but he was about to give me and Georgia one.
“Marry me, Tillie,” he said. “I love you. Let me help take care of you and your children. Let me love you, Georgia, and Rufus.”
Mama looked at me. Then she looked at Georgia as my little sister jumped up and sat herself down in our own daddy’s chair, where Mr. Paul had just been sitting.
“Lord have mercy, Paul. I can’t marry you. I still got love in my heart for my husband. My children got his blood in their veins.”
“I don’t want to hear about blood. I am talking about love. Love that’s alive, Tillie. We are alive. I love you and your children like they my own. I knew Rufus Sr. in school, and I know he was a good man. He’d want his children taken care of. You will be all right with me, Tillie. Marry me,” Mr. Paul begged.
“How can I marry you when you already got a wife—a mean wife, I hear—and she might show up any day?”
“Forget about Marjorie. I’m divorcing her. Everything will be final next week,” Mr. Paul said as he got off his knee.
“Paul, the answer is still the same. Now I best clean up so I can help my children with their homework.”
“All right. I have to go over to your brother’s house now, anyway. Reverend Shuttlesworth says Dr. King and some other civil rights leaders are coming back to Birmingham. We got a lot to talk about. But I will see you at work tomorrow, and yes, I will be back next Sunday and the Sunday after that, okay, Tillie? I love you, and I ain’t going to stop asking you to marry me.”
“Y’all be careful at your meeting, Paul. That’s all I got to say. Be careful.”
I watched from the window as Mr. Paul drove away. I was not going to tell Mama, but I was starting to like him. He cared about us, and he wanted white folks in Birmingham to stop treating us so bad. But liking him was one thing; wanting him to marry my mama was another.
Mr. Paul did what he said and came back the next Sunday and the one after that. I guess it was taking Mama too long to say yes, so he must have asked Uncle Sam to come over and put in a good word for him too.
Me and Slide were in the yard playing catch when the grown folks sat down on the porch. I moved closer to hear what they were saying.
“Sister, you ain’t getting any younger. Go on and marry Paul. He will be good to you and the children,” Uncle Sam told her.
“Mind your business, big brother. I thought you came over to talk to us about plans for the march at Kelly Park.”
“Well, I did, but we can talk about more than one thing.”
“Can I go to the next meeting?” I asked.
Mama looked at me. “Rufus, please stay out of grown folks’ business . . . and no, you can’t go to the meeting.”
“He just wants to know what’s going on, sister. Don’t be so hard on the boy,” Uncle Sam said.
“Yeah, don’t be so hard on me,” I repeated and laughed.
“Don’t be a smart mouth, Rufus Jr.,” Mama said as she pointed toward the door for me to take my butt into the house. Anytime Mama addedJunior to my name, I knew I was in trouble. I went inside and didn’t get to hear what more my uncle had to say. That was the end of that!
But by the next Sunday, something had changed. Uncle Sam and Mr. Paul brought me and Georgia back to Bull Hill after church was over. Mama and Aunt Ola took a ride in her nice Ford car to visit Daddy at the cemetery. While they were gone, Mr. Paul laid out the smoked ham, turnip greens, and peach cobbler.
When Mama and Aunt Ola walked in the door, Mama looked at me and Georgia with all the love she had in her heart. She flashed her eyes on Paul with that same love. Georgia noticed it too, and she must’ve known something was about to happen, because tears filled her eyes.
Aunt Ola put her hand on my little sister’s shoulder.
Mama’s mouth began to move faster than my heartbeat. “I been to the cemetery to have a word with Rufus Sr. He is at peace with God. And he is at peace with us moving on with our lives.”
Mr. Paul looked so happy, and we knew what that meant. He smiled at my mama like he had hit the lottery at the corner store downtown.
“Don’t say another word, Tillie. I’m going home so you can be with your children,” he said as he put on his Chicago-style hat.
“Come on, Ola, we are leaving too,” Uncle Sam said as he cut a piece of ham and put it in a napkin.
By the time they had all left, Georgia was crying like she had lost her mind, and I was hot as fish grease—there was no way I wanted him to marry my mama.
“Stop your crying, Georgia,” Mama said as she pulled us close to her and sat in between us on our old blue couch. “You got one daddy. Just one. Can’t anybody replace Rufus Sr. . . . but he ain’t coming back. I want to marry Paul and be happy again. All you got to do is be nice to him. You got to respect him, but you ain’t never got to call him Daddy.”
“Well, ain’t you happy with us?” Georgia asked Mama.
“Yes, of course I’m happy with you. I love you and your brother more than anything. But we can all be happy with Paul too. God put enough love in this family’s hearts for one more person. That person is Paul.”
Georgia wrapped her arms around Mama’s neck and finally stopped crying. “Okay, Mama. I do want you to be real happy.”
I gave Mama a big hug. If my little sister could be okay with Mama getting married, then I figured I could too.