Saturday, August 30, 2014

Entry # 225 - Interview with M.J.O'Brien, Author of WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED - 2014 Lillian Smith Book Award Winner

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired, is based on the iconic photograph by Fred Blackwell, which captured crisis moments in the Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s Sit-In in 1963. Those moments sparked major change in the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

Jan: Thanks Mike for agreeing to this interview. Congratulations to you in light of breaking news that your book has won the 2014 Lillian Smith Book Award, a prestigious civil rights book honor and you will be attending the awards ceremony on August 31 (this very weekend) at the Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta, GA to receive your award. And I find this book particularly interesting in light of the recent news stories of the terrible events in Missouri, New York, Florida and other states in which African Americans continue to experience violence, often at the hands of those who should provide protection to all citizens. You have said, “Fred Blackwell’s iconic photograph of the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in captivated you.” Tell me more about what led you to write this book?
Mike: I met one of the main characters in the book, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, through her five sons in the summer of 1977. The kids would always tell me that their mom was “in a famous picture” and would pull out mom’s scrapbook to prove it. It wasn’t until 1992 that I came to understand the full impact of that photo. I visited for the first time the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, and there, off in a small room, away from the formal exhibits, were all of the photographs that the King Center deemed important enough to portray the scope of the civil rights movement. Among those photos—mostly of Dr. King’s stellar career—was the picture that the Mulholland kids had shown me in their living room. Suddenly I realized in a flash that this was no ordinary scrapbook snapshot. This was living history! And I knew the woman at the center of that photo!
I call this my “electric moment.” A shot of adrenaline pumped through me as I felt called to explore what this image was all about: “Who took the photo? Who were the other people in the frame? What did it mean for the city of Jackson? What was its significance in the long and troubling history of the Mississippi movement?” If I didn’t know these things, I figured most people were in the dark about them as well. So I determined that I’d try and tell the story of this significant moment in civil rights history.
Jan: Your use of elements of documentary and historical research, combined with photographs and personalized interviews, provide a fascinating account about a game-changing day in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. In the face of so much varied material, how did you arrive at the overall structure for the book?
Mike: Honestly, I started out thinking I’d just tell Joan’s story and how she ended up at the counter that day. I gathered a deep trove of interviews with her and studied her substantial archives in order to tell her story. But as I read more broadly, I began to realize that her story was just one thread, interwoven with many others, that formed the impressive yet ultimately tragic fabric of what we know now as the Jackson Movement. The concept of telling each person’s story and how they happened to be at Woolworth’s in Jackson on May 28, 1963, provided the framework for the first part of the book.
The second section is what I call the “historical section.” There I provide the background and the footnoted, documented, data-driven yet highly dramatic account of how the Jackson Movement came into being and how it gradually pushed the mayor and other city officials in Jackson to the brink in an effort to secure basic human rights and dignity for all of Jackson’s citizens. This section details the three-week period of the Movement’s history from the day of the sit-in to the assassination and burial of the Movement’s leader, Medgar Evers. It breaks my heart every time I read that part because this tragedy was so avoidable, but Jackson’s leadership was simply unwilling to give an inch, unable to see that the time for white supremacy and racial segregation was coming to a close.
The final section provides a coda, if you will, allowing the reader to find out what happened in Jackson once the dust settled and the battle ended. It provides an overview of each of the main characters and what they did with the rest of their lives, after the heat of the media spotlight had shifted elsewhere. I wanted the reader to know what I knew about the lives of these individuals whom I had spent so much time getting to know. I wanted to recognize these heroic individuals who for a moment stood up against great oppression and then got on with their lives.
And the entire book—all three sections—hinge on the central image of Fred Blackwell’s famous photograph. A full description of what’s going on in the photo is the center point of the narrative and actually appears almost at the dead-center of the book. I tell the very moving story of what happened to Fred Blackwell that day in the Epilogue.
Jan: How do you account for what caused this moment, and Blackwell’s photographs, to extend the movement’s power and reach beyond the state’s borders? Many photographers covered that sit-in and other earlier sit-ins. What made this moment different?
Mike: It’s really hard to comprehend how this one moment, this one blink of a camera shutter, has come to represent so much of what occurred during the civil rights movement. This photograph shows up in nearly every historical account of the movement. It’s in children’s books, text books, major retrospectives, scholarly works, and popular nonfiction. It’s everywhere. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, there is a larger-than-life reproduction of Blackwell’s photograph that looks down upon an entire room filled with civil rights memorabilia, including a life-sized sculpture of demonstrators and hecklers at a lunch counter, modeled on that photo.
I think the easiest way to explain its impact is that the photograph tells a story. You don’t need to have much understanding of the civil rights movement to grasp that a small group of citizens—one black and two white—is being attacked at a lunch counter because they have chosen to sit down together. The group behind them is jeering them. One is pouring the final remnants of a sugar container on the white woman. It is obvious that all three have already been doused with all sorts of other food products—ketchup and mustard, as well as sugar. You can tell that these three are nonviolently challenging the “Southern way of life.” They are suffering because of their beliefs that racial segregation is morally wrong and an insult to people of conscience everywhere.
As I say in the Epilogue of the book, Fred Blackwell managed to “capture the essence of an era” with this one incredible image. That’s what great art does.
Jan: I understand that you initially wrote and published a version of this book in the 1990′s. I had not heard of it until 2013, after the University Press of Mississippi decided to publish it. Tell us about that. What happened?
Mike: Let me clear up that misconception. The book was never published until 2013, but ever since 1999, there had been a draft of an early manuscript that I circulated to various presses and agents. I had initially been offered a book contract with a small, start-up publisher back in the mid-1990s. That’s what really provided me with the impetus to plunge in and seriously get to work on the manuscript. For four years, I worked every day on this project—all the while holding down a full-time job and raising a full-time family. But I was just driven to tell this incredible story. By early 1999, we thought we were ready to go, but two things happened to stop the book’s release. One, some knowledgeable sources read the draft and felt it wasn’t quite fully baked. Two, the publishing firm I had contracted with was shuttering its doors and going out of business. It just wasn’t making any money. So even though Publisher’s Weekly had announced the book’s release in early 1999, the book never actually published at that time.
Instead, I sat on it for almost 10 years, always working to improve the content and structure while awaiting the opportunity to offer it to a new publisher who might take on this first-time author with an important story to tell. That opportunity surfaced in late 2008 when I received word that a revitalized University Press of Mississippi was expressing interest in telling Mississippi civil rights stories. I submitted a proposal to the press and within a week, UPM’s director was on the phone with me encouraging me to send her the entire draft manuscript.
In that sense, it’s a Cinderella story, but it took 15 years of hard work to get to that point! Ultimately, UPM took me on, sent the draft to a knowledgeable source for comment, and provided me with a complete critique. I used those comments to rework certain sections and shore up others. After two rounds of this and a complete copy edit, the book was ready for publication. The timing was fortuitous. The book was released in March 2013, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In.
Jan: I was in the eleventh grade, living in upper state South Carolina in 1963. I remember the fear and hatred that I heard on a daily basis in my school and community. Where were you and what do you remember about the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement?
Mike: I was in sixth grade in June 1963 at a Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia. My family had moved from Philadelphia (PA) three years earlier. The Catholic schools had just integrated, so my experience, though even in the upper South, was different from most.
My own experience of the world at that time was much more informed by the Catholic philosophies and social teachings of the church. June of 1963 is memorable to me because it was the month that Pope John XXIII died. I wasn’t tuned into the daily news yet, even though I delivered The Washington Post door to door during that period. It wasn’t until college that I began to explore the nonviolent philosophies of Mohandas Gandhi and Marting Luther King, Jr. And even here, I became interested in their teachings through the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.
What I remember most of that period is simply how turbulent it was. I may not have known of Medgar Evers, but I knew about the March on Washington, particularly since it happened just over the river from where I lived. I may not have been very socially aware, but I knew of the Kennedy assassination later that year. We got on our knees in school and prayed for the soul of the first Catholic president once we heard the announcement that he had been shot. What on earth was happening to America that our president could be killed? Five years later, another Kennedy and a King would be similarly murdered. It seemed as if our country was pulling apart at the seams.
[I wrote a blog post about this that you might find interesting or want to share w/ your readers:]
It may seem facile, but my education about race in America came through the music of the day. I was drawn to that extraordinarily expressive music of Motown and soul music. It was through that youthful pursuit that I developed an overriding empathy for the black struggle for equality.
[Here’s my blog post about the impact of soul and Motown on my early consciousness of race:]
Jan: One of my early memories as a young girl occurred when I went with my father to a Sears store in Anderson, SC. I must have been about six, and I drank from a water fountain near the shoe department. A woman yelled at me because I drank from the “colored” fountain. My father explained that blacks and whites had to use different water fountains. I was shocked. That was the first moment I became aware of this inequity. I remember telling him that made no sense at all. And he agreed.
Mike: Yeah, I never witnessed anything like that. For Joan Mulholland, however, who is 10 years older than I am and who grew up in Arlington, exposure to those kinds of racial segregation were transformative. Although she initially accepted these practices as part of life, when her eyes were opened to the extreme inequities in that system, she determined that she would do everything she could to change her beloved Southland. Her story is explored fully in WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, and is also the subject of the documentary film An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
Jan: WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED presents a straightforward account of the terrible personal realities and tragedies in the public and private response to the Civil Rights Movement for both blacks and whites. And now 50 years have passed. What mistakes do you still see in the way people talk about race and diversity in this country?
Mike: The realities of white privilege and the underlying currents of white supremacy are still so very present in our daily interactions and in our cultural and political lives. The fierce and extreme opposition to President Obama and his progressive agenda is a clear expression of lingering racism. There is an element of our society that doesn’t want him to succeed simply because of the color of his skin. The fact that he is president is an affront to their sensibilities. It is reminiscent of attitudes during the Reconstruction period when blacks became enfranchised and some of their more prominent and skilled representatives were elected to the U.S. Congress. White Southerners couldn’t bear the indignity and resorted to violent tactics to overturn elections and to ensure that black elected officials and the whites who supported them would fail.
I have a certain amount of empathy for whites who were raised under segregation. After all, they were taught in school, in churches, by their political leaders that this was morally and absolutely correct—the only way things could be. Anything else was an abomination. There’s an individual whom I profile in my book, D.C. Sullivan—the guy with the cigarette in his mouth in the famous photo—who even today still believes in the separation of the races. But I also know that these individuals have to search their hearts and realize that now, fifty years hence, they are obstructing progress by holding onto these false premises. They have to allow their hearts to be softened by honoring the humanity of their fellow citizens, whatever their racial makeup may be. Their obstructionism is dividing America and hurting this country that they hold so dear.
Jan: What do you hope readers learn and experience from reading, WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED?
Mike: In WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED I wanted to tell the complete story of one movement, from beginning to end. I wanted to show how messy it can be to attempt to change the status quo, but also how complicated and challenging and invigorating it can be to engage in social activism. I wanted to recognize the foot soldiers of the movement, as they are called—the unsung heroes who put themselves on the line for freedom with no expectation that they’d ever be personally recognized for what they did—I wanted to put their stories front and center to honor them for their service.
I would hope that readers would take from this story an appreciation for what happened in this country half a century ago—the fact that in a very real way we were at war with ourselves over the fundamental principal, outlined by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men” [and women] “are created equal.” And those who stood up for that principle deserve our appreciation and respect and yes, our praise, just as much as the men and women who fight to protect our country from external harm. In this “domestic war,” as I call it, people were killed, people were terrorized, people were displaced just as they are in foreign wars.
I would hope that through reading WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED, readers would experience, even if vicariously, what it meant to stand up for freedom and equality during this extremely turbulent and divisive period of our history. As a corollary, I would hope that understanding how troubling those times were, we might work harder to find common ground to solve today’s issues and challenges. We are so much more than our differences. Every day we have the opportunity to rise above our individual preferences and create something wonderful for our future and for the future of the planet.
Jan: Finally, what advice about writing have you found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Mike: Writing is such an individual act, it’s hard to generalize. I was compelled to write this story because of its power and because of the grip it had over my imagination. I wrote it as honestly and simply as I could, attempting to give everyone involved their say and their point of view.
I would say that the most important thing about writing is staying true to your creative vision. At one point during the long saga of getting the book into print, I was offered the opportunity to publish only the oral histories of the main characters, but not the entire dramatic developments that make the story what it is. Though the opportunity to get published was tempting, I had to remain true to my artistic vision and realize that the individual biographies had to serve the greater purpose of telling the whole story of the Jackson Movement. I turned down that offer, uncertain that the book as I wrote it would ever see the light of day. That was a hard choice. Now that the book is out, I feel vindicated because so many people have told me how gripping the story is and how it gave them a sense of what it must have been like to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement. I am thrilled that the story is finally out, and out in the way I had originally envisioned it.
So persistence and staying true to your vision are my advice. The way will eventually be made clear.
Jan: Thanks for the interview. How can readers obtain a copy of your book and contact you to speak?
Mike: The book is available through all of the online outlets:,, It can also be ordered through local bookstores. And, of course, it’s sold by the University Press of Mississippi ( I’m also grateful to UPM that it is available in an e-read version for both Kindle and Nook.
I can be reached by e-mail at Interested readers can also visit my blog (, which focuses primarily on civil rights and equality issues.
I appreciate the opportunity to tell the story of how WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED came to be. Thanks, and best wishes to you, Jan!


About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.  Jan's stories have been finalists for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, 2013 finalists in the Phoebe Fiction Contest, 2012 "So To Speak" Fiction Contest.
Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

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