Rufus J. Burrow. A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King, Jr., Young People, and The Movement. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014. 150 pages, $19.00

[1] Rufus Burrow Jr.’s A Child Shall Lead Them is about the courage and contributions made by black children and youth, and some whites (282), in the struggle for civil and human rights in the United States. We see in this narrative how black children, youth and others aided the efforts of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Some, like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner give their lives (159).  Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old native of Chicago who was visiting a great uncle in Money, Mississippi, was tortured to the point that his face was not recognizable, shot, barbed-wired with a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan to his neck, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  Four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, one eleven, and the others fourteen, were murdered while attending Sunday school at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (145). They were all participants without consent or contract.

[2] Burrow spotlights an understudied but critically important part of U.S. history. It is an inspiring story of young people coming of age in a world where racial terror was directed toward blacks, particularly in states across the South. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia we get a view of how children played a part in the liberation of their people. Black youth made contributions through bus boycotts, freedom rides, marches, and in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Burrow reports that “The whites in Selma were mean and brutish in their treatment of blacks, and expected them to stay in their appointed place of submission (219). Burrow points out that the terror inflicted upon blacks during this era was not merely physical and mental, but also political. Martin Luther King Jr. was aware of the contributions of black children and youth, and he acknowledge the concerns of the children, how they were affected by the struggle, and their expectations for the future (51).  He welcomed their contributions.

[3] In the final chapter Burrow struggles with his discussion of rearing black children. His suggestions for child rearing are simplistic. He writes on page 271-274 that “…black parents must again become vigilant in rearing black children such that they understand the need to behave in a certain way, control their tongue, and always be aware of the existence of racism, especially when away from home.” Well, yeah. But how do parents prepare/warn their playful, outgoing sons to never carry a toy that may be mistaken for a gun? Headlines abound with stories of an unarmed blacks being killed by white police officers who are not doing something wrong, but for simply being black.

[4]There are a number of editing problems which are an annoyance for the reader, such as when the Index citations do not match with page numbers. For example, where the Index refers to James Chaney on pages 157, and 158, the actual reference is on page 159. The index also refers to Stokely Carmichael on pages 217, but the Carmichael quote occurs on page 218. This editing problem is persistent throughout the book

[5] This book can be used profitably in seminary classrooms, or in book discussion groups. The witness and sacrifices of these young people is a tremendous lesson for youth of today, and is also an excellent reason for them to read, study, and reflect on the contributions of young people during the civil rights movement. As Vincent Wells has written in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Southern History, [this book] is very timely, considering “the new civil rights movement,” as some have called it, that is underway. Furthermore, the recently released movie Selma (2014) indicates that a need remains to understand these historical events in a practical and applicable sense, which Burrow’s work accomplishes.”

[6] Rufus Burrow, Jr. (Ph.D., Boston University) was Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Professor of Theological Social Ethics at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis. He is co-author of Daring to Speak in God's Name: Ethical Prophecy in Ministry (The Pilgrim Press, 2002) and author of Personalism: A Critical Introduction (1999); James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology (1994); God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians.


The Rev. James R. Thomas, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Church and Ministry at Lenoir-Rhyne University/Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

© February 2016
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 2