Picture Books and Primary Sources: A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington by Carole Boston Weatherford, Rob Sanders, and Byron McCray

A Song for the Unsung

A Song for the Unsung

After writing dozens of these posts and working on dozens of other picture book and primary source pairings, there are few that truly shift my thinking about how I should be teaching a topic in my school library. But that is exactly what happened as I began work pairing A Song for the Unsung with primary sources. The book gives an account of the 1963 March on Washington that I wasn’t familiar with, that of Bayard Rustin. Rustin was named deputy director of the march and did much of the logistical planning.

Weatherford and Sanders’ writing toggles back and forth between the day of the march and earlier in Rustin’s life to show the depth of his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. It also adeptly addresses Rustin being a gay man as a reason that others in the Movement did not always bring him to the forefront and possibly why many do not know his name today.

Sourcing and Contextualizing a Picture Book

There have been many times that I have sourced and contextualized a primary source, but I realized that I’ve never done this with a picture book. In many cases, including with this title, I think it could be helpful to put students in the right mindset to listen to a story.

I would begin by sourcing, asking students sourcing questions.

  • What format is this source?
  • What elements are usually in this type of source?
  • Why would someone create a source like this? 

Students can initially identify this as a nonfiction picture book or even a narrative nonfiction picture book. From there, can can draw on their rich history of those and related books to answer the other questions.

After spending just a few minutes sourcing, I would ask students to contextualize the story. After identifying what the book is about and when it takes place, questions could include:

  • What is happening during this time period?
  • What do I know about this topic?
  • What connections can I make?
  • What am I unsure of about this event?

Learners being able to draw out what they know about the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington, and the United States in the 1960s all help to ready them to hear the story.

Treating the Picture Book as a Secondary Source

Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director

Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director

After spending a few minutes sourcing and contextualizing, it is time to read the story. Because I want to expand the opportunities for discovery of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement, I want to treat it as a secondary source. But I also want to honor the enjoyment that comes in listening to a nonfiction picture book.

To accomplish both, I read the story twice. During the first read, students are invited to enjoy the story while also thinking about what they shared when contextualizing it just minutes before. If time allows, we will share out reactions as we might do with any other book. Then I move into the second reading. Here, students have a notes sheet where they are asked to focus on four to six moments of the story. The moments are their choice. For each moment, they have to record what happened in the story. This can be a quote or paraphrase of Weatherford and Sanders’ text. It may also be a description of one of McCray’s illustrations. Next, they have to react to that, sharing a short statement about why they thought that was important, interesting, or intriguing. Lastly, they have to write one question that they have about that moment in the story.

Treating the story as a secondary source gives students more contextual knowledge to bring into the next parts of the lesson.

Listening to Primary Sources

Bayard Rustin Interview

Bayard Rustin Interview

Rustin gives more insights into his thoughts about the March on Washington in two interviews. In a 1982 interview, he shares where the March is placed in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Similar insights are shared in an interview with Rustin for the Eyes on the Prize documentary. If wanting to share these 1982 insights, have students listen to the beginning of the interview through the 2:16 marker. To establish a routine of note taking, ask students to follow the same format they did with the picture book of identifying moments, reacting to those moments, and asking a question.

These tenets are displayed in the demands that Rustin shares with the crows at the end of A Song for the Unsung. Listen to that part of the March from a recording from The Educational Network’s coverage. Listening through the seven-minute mark will give the full portion of Rustin’s speech to the crowd. The content is also printed in the back matter of the picture book.

In another part of the Eyes on the Prize interview, Rustin shares more logistical information about his role as manager of the March. As students listen to this portion, ask them to compare it with the information contained within the picture book. What from the book is confirmed by Rustin’s interview? What from the interview expands on Weatherford and Sanders’ story? Students may utilize the transcript with the interview to isolate specific information to compare to the text from the picture book.

Images and newspaper articles related to the picture book can be found in my curated set of primary sources.

Extending the Learning

A Song for the Unsung and related primary sources gives students an opportunity to explore and learn about the Civil Rights Movement with The March on Washington as a key reference point. Other picture books and primary source pairings can be brought in for extended learning that connect to the Movement. Consider incorporating elements from other posts focused on the following picture books: Opening the Road, Above the Rim, The Teachers March, Let the Children March, A Place to Land, Waiting for Pumpsie, Sit-In, and Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hammer.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

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