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Book Spotlight: Now or Never

In his first work of creative nonfiction, titled Now or Never: Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery, Ray Anthony Shepard MLK ‘69 tells the story of two black Union soldiers who served during the American Civil War.

George E. Stephens and James Henry Gooding served in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, the first African-American unit of soldiers formed by the Union Army. The pair also worked as war correspondents, reporting on the battles they waged both on and off the front.

Mr. Shepard relies on the two soldiers’ firsthand accounts to show not only the realities of war, but also their determination to prove to the whole country that “they were worthy to be freemen.” They faced both the dangers of the battlefield and the injustices present in their own army. Their protest against unfair pay in the 54th brought about equal pay for black soldiers.

Mr. Shepard penned the young adult book so that readers “of any age might understand that the end of slavery did not come about by a generous act of the North, but was the consequence of Confederates’ refusal to accept Abraham Lincoln’s threat that if they did not end their rebellion he would declare their slaves free.” In a recent interview with South Coast Today, he added, “I also wanted to show that some forms of the underlying cause of slavery, racial arrogance, are being played out today as a kind of deep-space explosion that occurred more than a century ago but whose jagged fragments continue to orbit and crash to Earth.”

“This is a powerful use of primary resources,” said the Kirkus Review, “one that illuminates the lives of its subjects but never gets in the way of their remarkable stories. Rich backmatter provides useful information. Absolutely stellar.”

Mr. Shepard is a graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Education. As one of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Martin Luther King Fellows, he attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has spent time as a teacher and as editor-in-chief of a major education publishing company. Mr. Shepard is a grandson of a slave.


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