Students write historical fiction book about racial conflict

An unlikely group of budding authors is telling fresh stories about Martin Luther King Jr., restaurant sit-ins and protests against segregation in Atlanta: charter school students in grades five through eight.

These kids are some 50 years removed from the city’s civil rights battles, but they’re recreating some of the movement’s key events in a series of fictional short stories that will be compiled in a soon-to-be-published book.

The after-school writing project at KIPP Strive Academy in southwest Atlanta forces the 28 student-authors to learn about the past and then use their imaginations to craft tales of hardship and triumph.

When the project is complete, the book will provide readers with a unique perspective of the city’s racially divisive history and expose the students to potential writing careers. The book will be released at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival in September, where it will cost about $10 per copy.

One of the writers, 11-year-old Kadija Marshall, tells a story about King getting arrested after he refuses to leave a restaurant until he’s served. While in jail, King breaks up a fight between white and black inmates.

The story portrays these events as influences for his “Where do we go from here?” speech, in which King called for nonviolent economic and social change at the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

“Readers will understand about violence and history, and adults who read it will know that they could be writers too, because I’m a kid and I did it,” Marshall said.

In another story, 13-year-old Asia Belt writes about two orphans — one black and one white — who meet at the Carrie Steele Orphan Home in Atlanta, the predominantly black Atlanta orphanage chartered in 1888. Belt plans to tell a love story about her two characters, who are kept apart because of their skin color.

“I think they will get past their racial conflicts, but it will be quite a struggle because of the influence of society,” Belt said.

Other stories in the book include Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run, the Freedom Riders, the sit-in protest of Rich’s department store’s segregated restaurant and more.

The Wren’s Nest, the organization devoted to preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and African-American folklore, leads the writing project and will publish the book.

The book-writing project is now in its fourth year, but this is the first time stories have focused on historical fiction of Atlanta’s civil rights movement. Students wrote creative nonfiction in the program’s first two years and historical fiction set in Atlanta last year.

“Letting kids be their own storytellers is empowering. They aren’t just repeating stories. They’re telling their own,” said program director Jessie Matheson.

Each student is paired with professional writers who volunteered to provide one-on-one instruction and mentoring for the stories, which are usually between four and seven pages long.

The 28 storytellers were chosen from a field of more than 120 students who applied for the program, Matheson said. The stories are being written from February to April.

One student, 13-year-old Kwesi Jones, is weaving three story lines together to tell about the difficult process of integrating Atlanta’s public library system. The stories focus on the efforts of Irene Dobbs Jackson, who sought the right to get a library card and borrow books in 1959.

“He’s learning to jump into a character’s persona. He could have been the target of that discrimination if he were living in that time,” said Patrick Shaffner, who is Jones’ mentor.

Jones said he wanted to write a narrative that’s rooted in events that shaped society.

“I want readers to know that it wasn’t a simple process. It didn’t just occur. It took years to happen and this story shows how,” Jones said.

The book, which has yet to be titled, will be sold at the Decatur Book Festival and the Wren’s Nest online store.