Writing for History - Bausum Brings Non-Fiction Expertise to Festival of Books

Author Ann Bausum with John Lewis (left) and Jim Zwerg. Bausum will be featured at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood Sept. 21-24. Visit her author page for her schedule of events

Exploring 'March' for Civil Rights, Other Historical Events

By Ryan Woodard

"Keep writing" is an adage you’ll probably hear at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books. Taken at face value, it's useful - if not particularly profound - advice.  

However, the phrase has special meaning for Ann Bausum

Several years ago, the non-fiction author was in Washington, D.C. to accept an award for her 2005 non-fiction book "Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement."

The book examines segregation through the lives of Lewis and Zwerg, who rode together on a bus to Montgomery, Ala. as "freedom riders" during the Civil Rights Movement.   

Lewis is also a Georgia congressman and acclaimed author who co-wrote the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy "MARCH." Writing "Freedom Riders" had been a highlight of Bausum's career, but she hadn't seen Lewis in two years.

That is, until she coincidentally ran into him outside of her hotel.

A Chance Meeting

It was just such a magical moment to run into him and be able to chat with him for a few minutes to explain to him that I was in town for an award," she said, excitedly recapping the chance meeting with Lewis.

As they parted, Lewis, who has written hundreds of thousands of words, needed only two to inspire Bausum forever. "Keep writing." He justified hours of excruciating research and writing in just a few seconds.

"That was a really magical moment that was as special as the award itself," she said. "To once again cross paths with history and see one of the people I admire most is an example of how you can persevere and try to have an impact for good."

It was a moment that instantly made her hard work worthwhile.

"Each project brings a gift. Sometimes more than one."

Impact for Good

"Impact for good" is Bausum's primary motivation. From writings about the national gay rights movement, to the Civil Rights Movement, to an iconic dog who became a WWI hero, Bausum teaches valuable lessons from the past. She's inspired to study mistakes of the past to help others avoid repeating them.

She has written three books on the Civil Rights Movement, and her work is pertinent now more than ever, as racial tensions in America have peaked once again. With race riots in Charlottesville, Va. and racially-tinged officer-involved shootings frequently making headlines, Americans may wonder if modern-day history lessons will ever stick.

Bausum, for one, won't stop trying. She's determined to continue teaching the lessons that began with the Civil Rights Movement but remain unfinished.

"This is my generation's challenge, to continue this work," Bausum said.

Scenes from the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. Photo by Bob Fitch, Bob Fitch Photography Archive, courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi as featured in Ann Bausum's most recent book. Photo by Bob Fitch, Bob Fitch Photography Archive, courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The March Against Fear

Bausum didn't realize how relevant to modern-day society her most recent book, "The March Against Fear," would become.

Several years after its publication, the highly-publicized shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin stirred up the kind of hatred that was common in 1960s Alabama.

"When I began working on this book, we didn't have a black lives matter movement yet, but there are certainly echoes in the history I write about."

"The March Against Fear" is about James Meredith's walk across his home state of Mississippi to confront racial fears, discrimination, and hate. Two days into his journey, he was shot and wounded in a roadside attack.

Leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, rushed to take up his cause. What started as one man's mission became what Bausum considers to be one of the greatest protests of the civil rights era, but it received little attention.

"When I speak with young people, I remind them it takes constant vigilance and work to make a democracy. A democracy doesn't come fully formed...it's an organic, pliable construct that requires constant tending.

These stories from the past, when they resonate with people's lives today, can fuel the next generation to invest in keeping the democracy healthy and making it better and stronger."

Bausum admits that delving into the dark corners of history can be a gloomy process.

"It can be discouraging to look at the passage of 50 years and realize that for all the gains we've made as a society, there are still places where we're fighting the same battles we were fighting half a century ago."

But the upside is that her writing reminds people that they can make a difference. It helps her, personally, as well. "When these patterns in our current lives can be reflected in patterns from the past there's comfort in that. So we've faced some tough issues in the past, and here are the ways we faced them and that gives me strength to face them again."

Catching the History Bug

Bausum became interested in writing and reflecting on patterns from the past when she was a child.

"My father was a history professor and my mother was an academic also, and so I had their examples as people who were very devoted to making intelligent connections to the real world."

Bausum caught the history bug at a young age. She grew up with segregated instruction before being switched to integrated classrooms in fourth grade. Her first political memory was from first grade, with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Important historical events followed and stuck in her memory - everything from the Vietnam War to the anti-war movement, from the push for African-American rights to demands for women's equality, from the Watergate break-in to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

It wasn't hard to become fixated on history, considering that it was happening all around her.

"History wasn't an abstract concept; it was in the newspapers it was in communities that I was familiar with; and so I think it was something that felt very easy to be engaged with."

Scenes from the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. Photo by Bob Fitch, Bob Fitch Photography Archive, courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Above, a scene from the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. Photo by Bob Fitch, Bob Fitch Photography Archive, courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

From Marketing to Non-Fiction

Regular trips to Washington, D.C. engaged Bausum even more – she began to love U.S. history and the government – and led her to enroll at Beloit College in Wisconsin. After graduating, she wrote marketing copy for publishing companies in New York City before stopping work at the age of 30 to raise a family.

Later, she picked up old manuscripts and began to write. She realized she'd been prepping for her career her entire life.

"Before I became a writer, I was doing an awful lot of reading with my kids and it reminded me of the power of books in my own childhood. And I saw both fiction and non-fiction in a new light and discovered that non-fiction in particular, had gone through quite a metamorphosis since my childhood."

She noticed that the same historical non-fiction books that had been in the adults' section of the library were being written for young readers. Bausum had found her genre.

"I've always gravitated toward non-fiction. As a reader, that's my primary pleasure. Even as a kid in school I was caught up in stories about true events and people."

She takes "building blocks of facts" and weaves them into coherent and entertaining books that readers don't want to put down.

"I think I'd have a harder time trying to make stuff up," she said, laughing.

See Bausum at the South Dakota Festival of Books 

Bausum is eager to show young readers the power of books at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, where she'll share more stories from her career.

"This is my favorite book festival in the country. Folks in South Dakota are the most welcoming, thoughtful, curious and kind people, and I can't wait to be out there again."

To learn more about Bausum and other 2017 Festival presenters, download a free copy of the Festival guide below!