Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend: A Civil Rights Story


A true story inspires the moving tale of a mule that played a key role in the civil rights movement— and a young boy who sees history anew.

Sitting on a bench waiting for his mother, Alex spies a mule chomping on greens in someone's garden, and he can't help but ask about it.""Ol Belle?" says Miz Pettway next to him. "She can have all the collards she wants. She's earned it." And so begins the tale of a simple mule in Gee's Bend, Alabama, who played a singular part in the civil ...

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A true story inspires the moving tale of a mule that played a key role in the civil rights movement— and a young boy who sees history anew.

Sitting on a bench waiting for his mother, Alex spies a mule chomping on greens in someone's garden, and he can't help but ask about it.""Ol Belle?" says Miz Pettway next to him. "She can have all the collards she wants. She's earned it." And so begins the tale of a simple mule in Gee's Bend, Alabama, who played a singular part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When African-Americans in a poor community— inspired by a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.— defied local authorities who were trying to stop them from registering to vote, many got around a long detour on mule-drawn wagons. Later, after Dr. King's assassination, two mules from Gee's Bend pulled the farm wagon bearing his casket through the streets of Atlanta. As Alex looks into the eyes of gentle Belle, he begins to understand a powerful time in history in a very personal way.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As Alex, a contemporary African-American boy, watches a mule named Belle munching collard greens in a garden in Gee’s Bend, Ala., her elderly owner tells him that the animal can eat all she wants—“She’s earned it.” Inspired by real events, Ramsey (Ruth and the Green Book) and Stroud’s (The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom) story steps back in time as the woman explains why. After Martin Luther King Jr. visited the poor community in 1965 and rallied its black residents to register to vote, Belle and other mules brought wagonloads of people out to do just that after the white sheriff shut down the ferry; later Belle and another mule pulled King’s casket through the streets of Atlanta during his funeral procession. The story is written as a conversation between the woman and Alex, her first-hand perspective on events epitomizing the idea of “living history.” Lit with bright blues suggestive of period film posters, Holyfield’s (The Hallelujah Flight) thickly painted acrylic scenes successfully capture the story’s modern and historical eras. An author’s note provides further detail about Belle and Dr. King. Ages 5–8. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
An intergenerational story filled with heart and soul.
—Kirkus Reviews

Lovely to look at, informative, infinitely readable. The kind of book you can simply enjoy reading and having on your shelf.
—A Fuse 8 Production (SLJ blog)

Children's Literature - Marilyn Courtot
In a Civil Rights story that is unique, young readers will share with Alex his introduction to what it really meant to be a black person who voted in the south during the early years of the movement. The setting is contemporary; a bench outside a store in Gee's Bend, Alabama, where Alex is watching as a mule munches on collard greens in a garden. An old woman, Miz Pettway sits next to him and from her he learns the story of how the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to Gee's Bend and through his preaching urged the people to register to vote. They did and when Election Day arrived, the ferry that would transport them to the mainland was suddenly closed. Undeterred they spent half a day using cars and mule driven wagons to go to the polls. When Reverend King was assassinated, he had left wishes that his wagon/hearse be drawn by mules and so the people of Gee's Bend were asked to provide two. One was Bella, the mule munching on collards in Miz Pettway's garden. There is more to the story which is quite moving and there is a reference to the Gee's Bend quilts, many of which this reviewer saw when they were on display at a museum in Washington, DC. The illustrations have interesting perspectives which emphasize points made in the text. The spread of Gee's Bend residents heading out to vote is wonderful and the women quilting supports the reference and really why Alex and his mother are in town. One of my personal favorites is the picture of the police and their attempt to stop the mules from reaching Atlanta for Reverend King's funeral. Alex and other readers should come away with a better understanding of what life was like in the 1960s and the resilience of the folks who lived in Gee's Bend. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
School Library Journal
Gr 2–3—In this true story from the 1960s, a poor African-American community in Alabama becomes a microcosm for the Civil Rights Movement itself. While waiting for his mother to finish shopping, Alex occupies himself by watching a mule snack on a field of collard greens. He is surprised when an old woman walks by and tells him it is fine for Belle to eat as much as she wants. Miz Pettway explains by telling him a story. The people of Gee's Bend (or "Benders") were thrilled when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to speak to them. No black person from their county had ever dared to vote, but after Dr. King suggested that they register in nearby Camden, they were empowered to do it. When local authorities closed the ferry, the Benders arranged their own transportation. The same was true when the time came to vote. When several people lost their jobs as a result, they banded together and began making beautiful quilts as a means of support. In the sad days following Dr. King's assassination, the Benders were called upon again. Dr. King had wanted mules to pull a farm cart bearing his burial casket through the streets of Atlanta. The Benders sent Belle and another mule and once again succeed in spite of the barriers put in their way. Expressive acrylic illustrations in rich colors help make the story child-friendly and accessible. Belle is depicted with an appealing personality, but she is not anthropomorphized. This low-key, unsentimental story is a great vehicle for showing children how ordinary people can make a great difference.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780763640583
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 481,527
  • Age range: 5 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: AD710L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 10.00 (w) x 10.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Calvin Alexander Ramsey is a playwright, photographer, and painter. He adapted one of his plays for print as RUTH AND THE GREEN BOOK, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Calvin Alexander Ramsey lives in Atlanta.

John Holyfield has illustrated several books for children, including THE HALLELUJAH FLIGHT by Phil Bildner. John Holyfield lives in Virginia.

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