The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 (1995) is a historical-fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis. First published in 1995, it was reprinted in 1997. It tells the story of a loving African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan, in 1963. When the oldest son (Byron) begins to get into a bit of trouble, the parents decide he should spend the summer and possibly the next school year with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama. The entire family travels there together by car, and during their visit, tragic events take place.
The book was adapted for a TV movie of the same name, produced in 2013 and aired on the Hallmark Channel.
Although the Watson family is fictional, the characters are based on members of the author's family. He based the events on those of his childhood, especially in the first part of the book. Events later in the story center on the historic 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, soon after the civil rights protests had gained negotiation with white city leaders for integration. The bombing was a catalyst for increased activity in the Civil Rights Movement and work on voter registration in Mississippi, during Freedom Summer of 1964.
The story is based in Flint, Michigan, and focuses on narrator Kenny Watson and his family - his parents, his older brother Byron - an "official juvenile delinquent" - and his little sister Joetta. Byron is caught by his mother playing with matches in the house (despite having been warned repeatedly not to do it), which seems to be part of a pattern of misbehavior. The parents decide that Byron should live with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, for the summer and possibly the next school year. The family begins a roadtrip to take Byron to Birmingham. However, shortly after they arrive, Kenny witnesses the bombing of their grandmother's church, and that the family decides to return home, with Byron, in an attempt to avoid explaining the full implications of what has happened to the children.
Kenny is unable to process what has happened. He ran to the church moments after the bombing took place, as he believed his sister to be in the building, and saw the destruction. Four girls were killed, another was blinded, and one had to have one of her eyes removed. Several other people were injured less severely. Byron does his best to help Kenny understand what has happened, as their parents are reluctant to explain. Kenny sees that though the world is not perfect, he has to keep moving forward.
The book takes place from approximately January to September 1963, a turbulent time during the Civil Rights Movement. After the dramatic Birmingham campaign, which gained discussions with white civic leaders to end segregation, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was staged by KKK members, killing four African-American girls on September 15, 1963. It was one of the pivotal events of that year. Segregation, and whether or when it should be legally ended in the South, was a hotly debated topic at the time. Wilona is from Alabama and the Watson family lives in Flint, Michigan.
Kenneth Bernard "Kenny" Watson - The main character and narrator of the story, as well as the younger of the two sons of the Watsons. Kenny is ten years old. He is an excellent student, which makes him the target of bullying at Clark Elementary School.
Wilona Sands Watson - Usually called Momma. She's the wife of Daniel and the mother of the three children. A native of Birmingham, she slips into a thick Southern accent when mad or excited and complains about Flint's harsh winters. She is strict and overprotective but loves her kids.
Daniel Watson - The husband of Wilona and father of the three children. He's known for having a good sense of humor He is referred to as "Dad".
Byron Watson - Older brother of Kenny and Joey. He is considered the "God" of Clark Elementary School. He bullies kids along with his best friend Buphead. He is known for being a terrible student and is also known for breaking the rules and being a rebel. Byron is thirteen.
Joetta "Joey" Watson - Younger sister of Byron and Kenny. She follows the rules and is very religious. Joey has a special relationship with Byron. She is also five.
Buphead - Byron's best friend, who is also an "official delinquent," helps Byron bully many kids, including his brother. Byron and Buphead stand up for Kenny and Rufus when they're being bullied by Larry.
Grandma Sands - Grandmother of Kenny, Byron, and Joey, mother of Wilona, and mother-in-law of Daniel. She is supposed to be very strict. Seen by Wilona, Kenny, Byron, Joey, and Daniel when they arrived in Birmingham. Laughs like an evil witch. Grandma Sands walks with a cane due to having a stroke. Her husband died before the book began.
Rufus Fry - Kenny's new best friend and Cody's big brother. His family moves to Flint from the South. He and his little brother Cody befriend Kenny.
Cody Fry - Rufus's little brother. Rufus and Cody came from a poor Southern African-American family.
Lawrence "Larry" Dunn - the school bully in Kenny and Rufus's class. Larry is older because he was held back.
Mr. Robert - a dear friend of Grandma Sands. Mr. Robert started helping Grandma Sands out around the house after her husband died. It's hinted that Grandma Sands has a crush on Mr. Robert.
Mrs. Davidson - is the religious next door neighbor of the Watson's. Joey goes to church with Mrs. Davidson three times a week. Sometimes Wilona makes Kenny go to Sunday School with Joey.
LJ Jones - is a "friend" of Kenny who stole his dinosaurs
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was Christopher Paul Curtis' first novel, earning him a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King (wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Honor, and the Golden Kite Award. Curtis also wrote the Newbery Award-winning novel Bud, Not Buddy; Elijah of Buxton, and The Mighty Miss Malone.
In 2013, a television film based on the book premiered on the Hallmark Channel, starring Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, Latanya Richardson, Skai Jackson and David Alan Grier.