Civil Rights

Liars Don't Qualify

Junius Edwards

Junius Edwards was born in Alexandria, Louisiana,
forty-one years ago. He was educated Qt the University
of Oslo in Norway. The short story in this anthology
won first prize in the Writer's Digest Short
Story Contest. In 1959 he won a Eugene F. Saxton
Fellowship for Creative Writing. His short story,
"Mother Dear and Daddy," is in John Williams'
anthology The Angry Black. Mr. Edwards is author
of the novel If We Must Die.

      Will Harris sat on the bench in the waiting room for
another hour. His pride was not the only thing that hurt.
He wanted them to call him in and get him registered so
he could get out of there. Twice, he started to go into the
inner office and tell them, but he thought better of it. He
had counted ninety-six cigarette butts on the floor when a
fat man came out of the office and spoke to him.
                "What you want, boy?"
                Will Harris got to his feet.
                "I came to register."
                "Oh, you did, did your?"
                "Yes sir."
The fat man stared at Will for a second, then turned his
back to him.
                As he turned his back, he said, "Come on in here."
                Will went in.
                It was a lit lie office and dirty, but not so dirty as the
wailing room. There were no cigarette butts on the floor
here. Instead, there was paper. They looked like candy
wrappers to Will. There were two desks jammed in there,
and a bony little man sat at one of them, his head down,
his fingers fumbling with some papers. The fat man went
around the empty desk and pulled up a chair. The bony
man did not look up.
           Will stood in front of the empty desk and watched the
fat man sit down behind it. The fat man swung his chair
around until he faced the little man.
           "Charlie," he said.
           "Yeah, Sam," Charlie said, not looking up from his
           “Charlie. This boy here says he come to register."
           “You sure? You sure that's what he said, Sam'!" Still not
looking up. “You sure? You better ask him again, Sam."
           “I'm sure, Charlie."
           “You better be sure, Sam,"
           "All right, Charlie. All right. I'll ask him again," the
fat man said. He looked up at Will. "Boy. What you come
here for?"
           “I came to register."
          The fat man stared up at him. He didn't say anything. He
just stared, his lips a thin line, his eyes wide open. His left
hand searched behind him and came up with a handkerchief.
He raised his left arm and mopped his face with
the handkerchief, his eyes still on Will.
          The odor from under his sweat-soaked arm made Will
step back. Will held his breath until the fat man finished
mopping his face. The fat man put his handkerchief away.
He pulled a desk drawer open, and then he took his eyes
off Will. He reached in the desk drawer and took out a
bar of candy. He took the wrapper off the candy and threw
the wrapper on the floor at Will's feet. He looked at Will
and ate the candy.
          Will stood there and tried to keep his face straight. He
kept telling himself: I'll take anything. I'll take anything
to get it done.
           The fat man kept his eyes on Will and finished the candy,
He took out his handkerchief and wiped his mouth. He
grinned, then he put his handkerchief away.
           “Charlie." The fat man turned to the little man.
           "Yeah, Sam."
           "He says he come to register."
           "Sam, are you surer?”
           "Pretty sure, Charlie."
           "Well, explain to him what it's about." The bony man
still had not looked up.
           "All right. Charlie," Sam said, and looked up at Will.
           "Boy, when talks come here, they intend to vote, so they
register first.”
           "That's what I want to do," Will said.
           "What's that? Say that again." 
           “That's what I want to do. Register and vote."

           The fat man turned his head to the bony man.


           "Yeah, Sam."

           "He says...Charlie, this boy says that he wants to

register and vote."

           The bony man looked up from his desk for the first

time. He looked at Sam, then both of them looked at Will.

           Will looked from one of them to the other, one to the

other. It was hot, and he wanted to sit down. Anything.

I'll take anything.

           The man called Charlie turned back to his work, and

Sam swung his chair around until he faced Will.

           “You got a job?" he asked.

           "Yes, sir."

           “Boy, you know what you're doing?"

           "Yes, sir."

           “All right," Sam said. “All right."

           Just then, Will heard the door open behind him, and

someone came in. It was a man.

            "How you all'! How about registering?"

            Sam smiled. Charlie looked up and smiled.

            “Take care of you right away," Sam said, and then to

Will. “Boy. Wait outside."

            As Will went out, he heard Sam's voice: “Take a seat,

please. Take a seat. Have you fixed up in a little bit. Now,

what's your name?"

            "Thanks," the man said, and Will heard the scrape of a


            Will closed the door and went back to his bench.

            Anything. Anything. Anything. I’ll take it all.

            Pretty soon the man came out smiling. Sam came out

behind him, and he called Will and told him to come in.

Will went in and stood before the desk. Sam told him he

wanted to see his papers: Discharge, High School Diploma,

Birth Certificate, Social Security Card, and some other

papers. Will had them all. He felt good when he handed

them to Sam.

            "You belong to any organization?"

            "No, sir."

            “Pretty sure about that?"

            “Yes, sir."

            "You ever heard of the 15th Amendment?”

            "Yes, sir."

            “What does that one say?"

            “It's the one that says all citizens can vote."

            "You like that, don't you, boy? Don't you?"

            "Yes, sir. I like them all."

            Sam's eyes got big. He slammed his right fist down on

his desk top. "I didn't ask you that. I asked you if you

liked the I5th Amendment. Now, if you can't answer my


            "I like it," Will put in, and watched Sam catch his breath.

            Sam sat there looking up at Will. He opened and closed

his desk-pounding fist. His mouth hung open.


            "Yeah, Sam." Not looking up.

            "You hear that?" looking wide-eyed at Will. “You hear


            "I heard it, Sam."

            Will had to work to keep his face straight.

            Boy," Sam said. "You born in this town?"

            You got my birth certificate right there in front of you.

Yes, sir."

            “You happy here?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "You got nothing against the way things go around


            "No, sir."

            "Can you read?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Are you smart?"

            "No, sir."

            "Where did you get that suit?"

            "New York."

            "New York?" Sam asked, and looked over at Charlie.

Charlie's head was still down. Sam looked back to Will.

            "Yes, sir," said Will.

            "Boy, what you doing there?"

            "I got out of the Army there."

            "You believe in what them folks do in New York?"

            "I don't know what you mean."

            "You know what I mean. Boy, you know good and well

what I mean. You know how folks carryon in New York.

You believe in that?"

            "No, sir," Will said, slowly.

            "You pretty sure about that?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "What year did they make the 15th Amendment?"

            "...18...70," said Will.

            "Name a signer of the Declaration of Independence who

became President."

            "...John Adams."

            "Boy, what did you say?" Sam's eyes were wide again.

            Will thought for a second. Then he said, "John Adams."

            Sam's eyes got wider. He looked to Charlie and spoke

to a bowed head, "Now, too much is too much." Then he

turned back 10 Will.

            He didn't say anything 10 Will. He narrowed his eyes

first, then spoke.

            "Did you say just John Adams?"

            "Mister John Adams," Will said, realizing his mistake.

            "That's more like it," Sam smiled. "Now, why do you

want to vote?"

            "I want to vote because it is my duty as an American

citizen to vote,"

            "Hah," Sam said, real loud. "Hah," again, and pushed

back from his desk and turned to the bony man.


            "Yeah, Sam."

            “Hear that?”

            "I heard, Sam."

            Sam leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes on Charlie.

He locked his hands across his round stomach and sat there,


            "Yeah, Sam."

            "Think you and Elnora be coming over tonight?”

            "Don't know, Sam," said the bony man, not looking up.

            "You know Elnora,"

            "Well, you welcome if you can."

            "Don't know, Sam."

            "You ought to, if you can. Drop in, if you can. Come

on over and we'll split a corn whisky."

                The bony man looked up.

                “Now, that's different, Sam."

                "Thought it would be."

                “Can't turn down corn if it's good."

                "You know my corn."

                "Sure do. I'll drag Elnora. I'll drag her by the hair if I

have to."

                The bony man went back to work.

                Sam turned his chair around to his desk. He opened a

desk drawer and took out a package of cigarettes. He tore

it open and put a cigarette in his mouth. He looked up at

Will, then he lit the cigarette and look a long drag, and

then he blew the smoke, very slowly, up toward Will's face.
                The smoke floated up toward Will's face. It came up in

front of his eyes and nose and hung there, then it danced

and played around his face and disappeared.

                Will didn't move, but he was glad he hadn't been asked

to sit down.

                "You have a car?"

                "No, sir."

                “Don't you have a job?"

                “Yes, sir."

                "You like that job?”

                "Yes, sir,"

                “You like it, but you don't want it."

                "What do you mean?" Will asked.

                “Don't get smart, boy," Sam said, wide-eyed. “I'm ask-

ing the questions here, You understand that?"

                "Yes, sir."

                “All right, All right. Be sure you do."

                “I understand it."

                “You a Communist?"

                "No, sir."

                “What party do you want to vote for?"

                “I wouldn't go by parties. I'd read about the men and

vote for a man, not a party,"

                "Hah," Sam said, and looked over at Charlie's bowed

head. “Hah," he said again, and turned back to Will.

                “Boy. you pretty sure you can read?"

                “Yes, sir."

                "All right. All right. We"1 see about that." Sam took a

book out of his desk and flipped some pages. He gave the

book to Will.

                “Read that loud," he said,

                "Yes, sir," Will said, and began: “'When in the course

of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to

dissolve the political bands which have connected them

with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth

the separate and equal station to which the Law's of Nature

and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the

opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the

causes which impel them to thc separation.'"

                Will cleared his throat and read on. He tried to be dis-

tinct with each syllable, He didn't need the book. He could

have recited the whole thing without the book.

                “’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men

are created equal, that they…’ "

                “Wait a minute, boy," Sam said. “Wait a minute. You

believe that? You believe that about 'created equal’?"
                "Yes, sir," Will said, knowing that was the wrong answer.

                "You really believe that?”

                "Yes, sir." Will couldn't make himself say the answer

Sam wanted to hear.

                Sam stuck out his right hand, and Will put the book

in it. Then Sam turned to the other man.


                "Yeah, Sam."

                “Charlie, did you hear that?”

                "What was it, Sam?”

                "This boy, here, Charlie. He says he really believes it."

                "Believes what, Sam'! What you talking about?”

                "This boy, here...believes that all men are equal, like

it says in The Declaration."

                "Now, Sam. Now you know that's not right. You know

good and well that's not right. You heard him wrong. Ask

him again, Sam. Ask him again, will you?”

                "I didn't hear him wrong, Charlie," said Sam, and turned

to Will. "Did I, boy? Did I hear you wrong?”

                "No, sir."

                "I didn't hear you wrong?"

                "No, sir."

                Sam turned to Charlie.


                "Yeah, Sam."

                "Charlie. You think this boy trying to be smart?"

                "Sam. I think he might be. Just might be. He looks like

one of them that don't know his place."

                Sam narrowed his eyes.

                "Boy," he said. "You know your place?”

                "I don't know what you mean."

                "Boy, you know good and well what I mean."

                "What do you mean?”

                "Boy, who's..." Sam leaned forward, on his desk. "Just

who's asking questions, here?"

                "You are, sir."

                “Charlie. You think he really is trying to be smart?"

                "Sam, I think you better ask him."


                “Yes, sir."

                “Boy. You trying to be smart with me?”

                "No, sir."


                "Yeah, Charlie."

                "Sam. Ask him if he thinks he's good as you and me."

                "Now, Charlie. Now, you heard what he said about The


                "Ask, anyway, Sam."

                "All right," Sam said. "Boy. You think you good as me

and Mister Charlie?"

                "No, sir," Will said.

                They smiled, and Charlie turned away.

                Will wanted to take off his jacket. It was hot, al1d he felt

a drop of sweat roll down his right side. He pressed his

right arm against his side to wipe out the sweat. He thought

he had it, but it rolled again, and he felt al1othcr drop come

behind that one. He pressed his arm in again. It was no

use. He gave it up.

                "How many stars did the first flag have?"


                "What's the name of the mayor of this town?"

                "...Mister Roger Phillip Thornedyke Jones."

                "Spell Thornedyke."

                "…Capital T-h-o-r-n-e-d-y-k-e, Thornedyke."

                "How long has he been mayor?”

                "...Seventeen years."

                "Who was the biggest hero in the War Between the


                "...General Robert E. Lee."

                "What does that 'E' stand for?”


                "Think you pretty smart, don't you?"

                "No, sir."

                "Well, boy, you have been giving these answers too

slow. I want them fast. Understand? Fast."

                "Yes, sir."

                "What's your favorite song?"

                Dixie," Will said, and prayed Sam would not ask him

to sing it.

                "Do you like your job?”

                "Yes, sir."

                "What year did Arizona come into the States?"


                "There was another state in 1912."

                "New Mexico, it came in January and Arizol1a in


                "You thil1k you smart, don't your?”

                "No, sir."

                “Don't you think you smart? Don't you?"

                "No, sir."

                "Oh, yes, you do, boy."

                Will said nothing.

                "Boy, you make good money on your job?”

                "I make enough."

                "Oh. Oh, you not satisfied with it?”

                "Yes, sir. I am."

                "You don't act like it, boy, You know that? You don't

act like it."

                "What do you mean?"

                "You getting smart again, boy. Just who's asking ques-

tions here?"

                “You are, sir."

                "That's right. That's right."

                The bony man made a noise with his lips and slammed

his pencil down on his desk. He looked at Will, then at Sam.

                "Sam," he said. “Sam, you having trouble with that boy?

Don't you let that boy give you no trouble, now, Sam.

Don't you do it."

                "Charlie," Sam said. "Now, Charlie, you know better

than that. You know better. This boy here knows better

than that, too."

                "You sure about that, Sam? You sure?"

                "I better be sure if this boy here knows what's good

for him."

                "Does he know, Sam?"

                "Do you know, boy?" Sam asked Will.

                "Yes, sir."

                Charlie turned back to his work.

                “Boy," Sam said. “You sure you're not a member of any


                “Yes, sir. I'm sure."

                Sam gathered up all Will's papers, and he stacked them

very neatly and placed them in the center of his desk.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and put it out in

the full ash tray. He picked up Will's papers and gave them

to him.

                "You've been in the Army. That right?"

                "Yes, sir."

                "You served two years. That right?"

                “Yes, sir."

                “You have to do six years in the Reserve. That right?"

                "Yes, sir."

                "You're in the Reserve now. That right?"

                “Yes, sir.”

                "You lied to me here, today. That right?"

      “No, sir."

                “Boy, I said you lied to me here today. That right?”

                "No, sir."

                “Oh, yes, you did, boy. Oh, yes, you did. You told me

you wasn't in any organization. That right?”

                “Yes, sir."

                "Then you lied, boy, You lied to me because you're in

the Army Reserve. That right?"

                "Yes, sir. I'm in the Reserve, but I didn't think you

meant that. I'm just in it, and don't have to go to meetings

or anything like that. I thought you meant some kind of

civilian organization."

                "When you said you wasn't in an organization, that was

a lie. Now, wasn't it, boy?”

                He had Will there. When Sam had asked him about

organizations, the first thing to pop in Will's mind had been

the communists, or something like them.

                "Now, wasn't it a lie?”

                "No, sir."

                Sam narrowed his eyes.

                Will went on.

                "No, sir, it wasn't a lie. There's nothing wrong with the

Army Reserve. Everybody has to be in it. I'm not in it

because I want to be in it."

                "I know there's nothing wrong with it," Sam said. “Point

is, you lied to me here, today."

                "I didn't lie. I just didn't understand the question," Will


                "You understood the question, boy. You understood

good and well, and you lied to me. Now, wasn't it a lie?”

                "No, sir."

                “Boy. You going to stand right there in front of me big as

anything and tell me it wasn't a lie?" Sam almost shouted.

“Now, wasn't it a lie?"

                "Yes, sir," Will said, and put his papers in his jacket


                "You right, it was,” Sam said.

                Sam pushed back from his desk.

                "That's it, boy. You can't register. You don't qualify,

Liars don't qualify."


                "That's ______ spat the words out and looked at Will

hard for a sound, and then he swung his chair around until

he faced Charlie,


      “Yeah, Sam."

                "Charlie. You want to go out to eat first today?"

                Will opened the door and went out. As he walked down

the stairs he took off his jacket and his tie and opened his

collar and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He stood on the court-

house steps and took a deep breath and heard a noise come

from his throat as he breathed out and looked at the flag

in the court yard. The flag hung from its staff, still and

quiet, the way he hated to see it; but it was there, waiting,

and he hoped that a little push from the right breeze would

lift it and send it flying and waving and whipping from

its staff, proud, the way he liked to see it.

                He took out a cigarette and lit it and took a slow deep

drag. He blew the smoke out. He saw the cigarette burn-

ing in his right hand, turned it between his thumb and

forefinger, made a face, and let the cigarette drop to the

court-house steps.

                He threw his jacket over his left shoulder and walked on

down to the bus stop, swinging his arms.

DIANE OLIVER was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1943;

she was killed in an automobile accident in 1966. She was a graduate

of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was awarded

an M.F.A. by Iowa University in 1966. Stories by Miss Oliver have

appeared in Red Clay Reader, The Negro Digest, The Sewanee

Review, and New Writing of the Sixties.




The bus turning the corner of Patterson and Talford Avenue was

dull this time of evening. Of the four passengers standing in the

rear, she did not recognize any of her friends. Most of the people

tucked neatly in the double seats were women, maids and cooks on

their way from work or secretaries who had worked late and were

riding from the office building at the mill. The cotton mill was out

from town, near the house where she worked. She noticed that a

few men were riding too. They were obviously just working men,

except for one gentleman dressed very neatly in a dark grey suit

and carrying what she imagined was a push-button umbrella.

He looked to her as though he usually drove a car to work.

She immediately decided that the car probably wouldn't start this

morning so he had to catch the bus to and from work. She was

standing in the rear of the bus, peering at the passengers, her arms

barely reaching the over-head railing, trying not to wobble with every

lurch. But every corner the bus turned pushed her head toward a

window. And her hair was coming down too, wisps of black curls

swung between her eyes. She looked at the people around her.

Some of them were white, but most of them were her color. Looking

at the passengers at least kept her from thinking of tomorrow. But

really she would be glad when it came, then everything would be


She took a firmer grip on the green leather scat and wished she

had on her glasses. The man with the umbrella was two people

ahead of her on the other side of the bus, so she could see him

between other people very clearly. She watched as he unfolded the

evening newspaper, craning her neck to see what was on the front

page. She stood, impatiently trying to read the headlines, when she

realized he was staring up at her rather curiously. Biting her lips she

turned her head and stared out the window until the downtown sec-

tion was in sight.

      She would have to wait until she was home to see if they were

in the newspaper again. Sometimes she felt that if another person

snapped a picture of them she would burst out screaming. Last Mon-

day reporters were already inside the pre-school clinic when she

took Tommy for his last polio shot. She didn't understand how

anybody could be so heartless to a child. The flashbulb went off

right when the needle went in and all the picture showed was

Tommy's open mouth.

      The bus pulling up to t1ie curb jerked to a stop, startling her

and confusing her thoughts. Clutching in her hand the paper bag

that contained her uniform, she pushed her way toward the door,

By standing in the back of the bus, she was one of the first people

to step to the ground. Outside the bus, the evening air felt humid

and uncomfortable and her dress kept sticking to her. She looked up

and remembered that the weatherman had forecast rain. Just their

luck--why, she wondered, would it have to lain on top of everything


      As she walked along, the main street seemed unnaturally quiet

but she decided her imagination was merely playing tricks. Besides,

most of the stores had been closed since five o'clock.

      She stopped to look at a reversible raincoat in Ivey's window,

but although she had a full time job now, she couldn't keep her

mind on clothes. She was about to continue walking when she

heard a horn blowing. Looking around, half-scared but also curious,

she saw a man beckoning to her in a grey car. He was nobody

she knew but since a nicely dressed woman was with him in the

front seat, she walked to the car.

      “You're Jim Mitchell's girl, aren't you?" he questioned, “You Ellie

or the other one?"

      She nodded yes, wondering who he was and how much he had

been drinking.

      "Now honey," he said leaning over the woman, “you don't know

me but your father does and you tell him that if anything happens

to that boy of his tomorrow we're ready to set things straight." He

looked her straight in the eye and she promised to take home the


      Just as the man was about to step on the gas, the woman reached

out and touched her arm. "You hurry up home, honey, it's about

dark out here."

      Before she could find out their names, the Chevrolet had dis-

appeared around a corner. Ellie wished someone would magically

appear and tell her everything that had happened since August. Then

maybe she could figure out what was real and what she had been

imagining for the past couple of days.

      She walked past the main shopping district up to Tanner's where

Saraline was standing in the window peeling oranges. Everything

in the shop was painted orange and green and Ellie couldn't help

thinking that poor Saraline looked out of place. She stopped to

wave to her friend who pointed the knife to her watch and then

to her boyfriend standing in the rear of the shop. Ellie nodded that

she understood. She knew Sara wanted her to tell her grandfather

that she had to work late again. Neither one of them could figure

out why he didn't like Charlie. Saraline had finished high school

three years ahead of her and it was time for her to be getting

married. Ellie watched as her friend stopped peeling the orange long

enough to cross her fingers. She nodded again but she was afraid

all the crossed fingers in the world wouldn't stop the trouble tomor-


She stopped at the traffic light and spoke to a shrivelled woman

hunched against the side of a building. Scuffing the bottom of her

sneakers on the curb she waited for the woman to open her mouth

and grin as she usually did. The kids used to bait her to talk, and

since she didn't have but one tooth in her whole head they ca1led

her Doughnut Puncher. But the woman was still, the way everything

else had been all week.

From where Ellie stood, across the street from the Sears and

Roebuck parking lot, she could see their house, all of the houses

on the single street white people called Welfare Row.  Those news-

paper men always made her angry. All of their articles showed how

rough the people were on their street. And the reporters never said

her family wasn't on welfare, the papers always said the family lived

on that street. She paused to look across the street at a group of kids

pouncing on one rubber ba1l. There were always white kids around

their neighborhood mixed up in the games, but playing with thrm

was almost an unwritten rule. When everybody started going to

school, nobody played together any more.

      She crossed at the corner ignoring the cars at the stop light and

the closer she got to her street the more she realized that the news-

paper was right. The houses were ugly, there were not even any

trees, just patches of scraggly bushes and grasses. As she cut across

the sticky asphalt pavement covered with cars she was conscious

of the parking lot floodlights casting a strange glow on her street.

She stared from habit at the house on the end of the block and

except for the way the paint was peeling they all looked alike to her.

Now at twilight the flaking grey paint had a luminous glow and as

she walked down the dirt sidewalk she noticed Mr. Paul's pipe

smoke added to the hazy atmosphere. Mr. Paul would be sitting

in that same spot waiting until Saraline came home. Ellie slowed

her pace to speak to the elderly man sitting on the porch.

      "Evening, Mr. Paul," she said. Her voice sounded clear and out

of place on the vacant street.

      “Eh, who's that?" Mr. Paul leaned over the rail, "What you say,


      “How are you?" she hollered louder. “Sara said she'd be late

tonight, she has to work." She waited for the words to sink in.

      His head had dropped and his eyes were facing his lap. She

could see that he was disappointed. “Couldn't help it," he said

finally. "Reckon they needed her again." Then as if he suddenly

remembered he turned toward her.

      “You people be ready down there? Still gonna let him go tomor-


      She looked at Mr. Paul between the missing rails on his porch,

seeing how his rolled up trousers seemed to fit exactly in the vacant

bannister space.

      “Last I heard this morning we're still letting him go," she said.

      Mr. Paul had shifted his weight back to the chair. “Don't reckon

they'll hurt him," he mumbled, scratching the side of his face. “Hope

he don't mind being spit on though. Spitting ain't like cutting.

They can spit on him and nobody'll ever know who did it," he

said, ending his words with a quiet chuckle.

      Ellie stood on the sidewalk grinding her heel in the dirt wait-

ing for the old man to finish talking. She was glad somebody found

something funny to laugh at. Finally he shut up.

      “Goodbye, Mr. Paul," she waved. Her voice sounded loud to

her own cars. But she knew the way her head ached intensified

noises. She walked home faster, hoping they had some aspirin in the

house and that those men would leave earlier tonight.

      From the front of her house she could tell that the men were

still there. The living room light shone behind the yellow shades,

coming through brighter in the patched places. She thought about

moving the geranium pot from the porch to catch the rain but

changed her mind. She kicked a beer can under a car parked in the

street and stopped to look at her reflection on the car door. The tiny

flowers of her printed dress made her look as if she had a strange

tropical disease. She spotted another can and kicked it out of the

way of the car, thinking that one of these days some kid was going

to fall and hurt himself. What she wanted to do she knew was kick

the car out of the way. Both the station wagon and the Ford had

been parked ill front of her house all week, waiting. Everybody was

just sitting around waiting.

      Suddenly she laughed aloud. Reverend Davis' car was big and

black and shiny just like, but no, the smile disappeared from her

face, her mother didn't like for them to say things about other

people's color. She looked around to see who else came, and saw

Mr. Moore's old beat up blue car. Somebody had torn away half of

his NAACP sign. Sometimes she really felt sorry for the man. No

matter how hard he glued on his stickers somebody always yanked

them of again.

      Ellie didn't recognize the third car but it had an Alabama license

plate. She turned around and looked up and down the street, hating

to go inside. There were no lights on their street, but in the distance

she could see the bright lights of the parking lot. Slowly she did an

about face and climbed the steps.

      She wondered when her mama was going to remember to get

a yellow bulb for the porch. Although the lights hadn't been turned

on, usually June bugs and mosquitoes swarmed all around the porch.

By the time she was inside the house she always felt like they

were crawling in her hair. She pulled on the screen and saw that

Mama finally had made Hezekiah patch up the holes. The globs of

white adhesive tape scattered over the screen door looked just like

misshapen butterflies.

      She listened to her father's voice and could tell by the tone that

the men were discussing something important again. She rattled the

door once more but nobody came.

      "Will somebody please let me in?" Her voice carried through

the screen to the knot of men sitting in the corner.

      "The door's open," her father yelled. "Come on in."

      "The door is not open," she said evenly. "You know we stopped

leaving it open." She was feeling tired again and her voice had

fallen an octave lower.

      "Yeah, I forgot, I forgot," he mumbled walking to the door.

      She watched her father almost stumble across a chair to let her in.

He was shorter than the light bulb and the light seemed to beam

down on him, emphasizing the wrinkles around his eyes. She could

tell from the way he pushed open tile screen that he hadn't had

much sleep either. She'd overheard him telling Mama that the people

down at the shop seemed to be piling on the work harder just

because of this thing. And he couldn't do anything or say anything

to his boss because they probably wanted to fire him.

      "Where's Mama?" she whispered. He nodded toward the back.

      "Good evening, everybody," she said looking at the three men

who had not looked up since she entered the room. One of the men

half stood, but his attention was geared back to something another

man was saying. They were sitting on the sofa in their shirt sleeve's

and there was a pitcher of ice water on the window sill.

      "Your mother probably needs some help," her father said. She

looked past him trying to figure out who the white man was sitting

on the end. His face looked familiar and she tried to remember

where she had seen him before. The men were paying no attention

to her. She bent to see what they were studying and saw a large

sheet of white drawing paper. She could see blocks and lines and

the man sitting in the middle was marking a trail with the eraser

edge of the pencil.

      The quiet stillness of the room was making her head ache more.

She pushed her way through the red embroidered curtains that led

to the kitchen.

      "I'm home, Mama," she said, standing in front of the back door

facing the big yellow sun Hezekiah and Tommy had painted on the

wall above the iron stove. Immediately she felt a warmth permeating

her skin. “Where is everybody?" she asked, sitting at the table where

her mother was peeling potatoes.

“Mrs. McAllister is keeping Helen and Teenie," her mother said.

"Your brother is staying over with Harry tonight." With each name

she uttered, a slice of potato peeling tumbled to the newspaper on

the table. "Tommy's in the bedroom reading that Uncle Wiggily


      Ellie looked up at her mother but her eyes were straight ahead.

She knew that Tommy only read the Uncle Wiggily book by him-

self when he was unhappy. She got up and walked to the kitchen


      "The other knives dirty?" she asked.

      "No," her mother said, "look in the next drawer."

      Ellie pulled open the drawer, flicking scraps of white paint with

her fingernail. She reached for the knife and at the same time a pile

of envelopes caught her eye.

      "Any more come today?" she asked, pulling out the knife and

slipping the envelopes under the dish towels.

      "Yes, seven more came today," her mother accentuated each word

carefully. "Your father has them with him in the other room."

      "Same thing?" she asked picking up a potato and wishing she

could think of some way to change the subject.

      The white people had been threatening them for the past three

weeks. Some of the letters were aimed at the family, but most of

them were directed to Tommy himself. About once a week in the

same handwriting somebody wrote that he'd better not cat lunch at

school because they were going to poison him.

      They had been getting those letters ever since the school board

made Tommy's name public. She sliced the potato and dropped the

pieces in the pan of cold water. Out of all those people he had been

the only one the board had accepted for transfer to the elementary

school. The other children, the members said, didn't live in the dis-

trict. As she cut the eyes out of another potato she thought about

the first letter they held received and how her father just set fire to

it in the ashtray. But then Mr. Bell said they'd better save the rest,

ill case anything happened, they might need the evidence for court.

      She peeped up again at her mother, "Who's that white man in

there with Daddy?"

      "One of Lawyer Belk's friends," she answered. “He's pastor of the

church that's always on television Sunday morning. Mr. Belk seems

to think that having him around will do some good." Ellie saw that

her voice was shaking just like her hand as she reached for the last

potato. Both of them could hear Tommy in the next room mum-

bling to himself. She was afraid to look at her mother.

      Suddenly Ellie was aware that her mother's hands were trembling

violently. "He's so little," she whispered and suddenly the knife

slipped out of her hands and she was crying and breathing at the

same time.

      Ellie didn't know what to do byt after a few seconds she cleared       away the peelings and put the knives in the sink. “Why don't you

lie down?” she suggested. "I'11 clean up and get Tommy in bed”

Without saying anything her mother rose and walked to her bed-


      Ellie wiped off the table and draped the dishcloth over the sink.

She stood back and looked at the rusting pipes powdered with a

whitish film. One of these days they would have to paint the place.

She tiptoed past her mother who looked as if she had fallen asleep

from exhaustion.

      "Tommy," she called softly, "come on and get ready for bed."

      Tommy sitting in the middle of the floor did not answer. He was

sitting the way she imagined he would be, crosslegged, pulling his

ear lobe as he turned the ragged pages of Uncle Wiggily at the Zoo.

      "What you doing, Tommy?" she said, squatting on the floor be-

side him. He smiled and pointed at tile picture of the ducks.

      “School starts tomorrow," she said, turning a page with him.

      "Don't you think it's time to go to bed?"

      "Oh Ellie, do I have to go now?" She looked down at the serious

brown eyes and the closely cropped hair. For a minute she wondered

if he questioned having to go to bed now or to school tomorrow.

      “Well," she said, "aren't you about through with the book?” He

shook his head. "Come on," she pulled him lip, "you're a sleepy

head.” Still he shook his head.

      "When Helen and Teenie coming home?”

      "Tomorrow after you come home from school they'll be here."

      She lifted him from the floor, thinking how small he looked to

be facing all those people tomorrow.

      "Look," he said, breaking away from her hand and pointing to a

blue shirt and pair of cotton twill pants, "Mama got them for me

to wear tomorrow."

      While she ran water in the tub, she heard him crawl on top of

the bed. He was quiet and she knew he was untying his sneakers.

      "Put your shoes out," she caI1cd through the door. "and maybe

Daddy will polish them."

      "Is Daddy still in there with those men? Mama made me be

quiet so I wouldn't bother them."

      He paddled into the bathroom with bare feet and crawled into the

water. As she scrubbed him they played Ask Me A Question, their

own version of Twenty Questions. She had just dried him and was

about to have him step into his pajamas when he asked: "Are they

gonna get me tomorrow?"

      "Who's going to get you?" She looked into his eyes and began

rubbing him furiously with the towel.

      "I dOn't know," he answered. "Somebody I guess."

      "Nobody's going to get you," she said, "who wants a little boy

who gets bubblegum in his hair anyway--but us?" He grinned but

as she hugged him she thought how much he looked like his father.

They walked to the bed to say his prayers and while they were kneel-

ing she heard tile first drops of rain. By the time she covered him

up and tucked the spread off the floor the rain had changed to a

steady downpour.

      When Tommy had gone to bed her mother got up again and be-

gan ironing clothes in the kitchen. Something, she said, to keep her

thoughts busy. While her mother folded and sorted the clothes Ellie

drew up a chair from the kitchen table. They sat in the kitchen for

a while listening to the voices of the men in the next room. Her

mother's quiet speech broke the stillness in the room.

      "I'd rather," she said, making sweeping motions with the iron,

"that you stayed home from work tomorrow and went with your

father to take Tommy. I don't think I'll be up to those people."

Ellie nodded, "I don't mind," she said, tracing circles on the oil-

cloth covered table.

“Your father’s going," her mother continued. "Belk and Rever-

end Davis are too. I think that white man in there will probably go."

"They may not need me," Ellie answered.

"Tommy will," her mother said, folding the last dish towel and

storing it in the cabinet.

"Mama, I think he's scared," the girl turned toward the woman.

"He was so quiet while I was washing him."

"I know," she answered, sitting down heavily. "He's been that way

all day." Her brown wavy hair glowed in the dim lighting of the

kitchen. “I told him he wasn't going to school with Jakie and Bob

any more but I said he was going to meet some other children just

as nice."

      Ellie saw that her mother was twisting her wedding band around

and around on her finger.

      "I've already told Mrs. Ingraham that I wouldn't be able to come

out tomorrow." Ellie paused, "She didn't say very much. She didn't

even say anything about his pictures in the newspaper. Mr. Ingraham

said we were getting right crazy but even he didn't say anything


She stopped to look at the clock sitting near the sink. "It's almost

time for the cruise cars to begin," she said, Her mother followed

Ellie's eyes to the sink. The policemen circling their block every

twenty minutes was supposed to make them feel safe, but hearing

the cars come so regularly and that light flashing through the shade

above her bed only made her nervous.

She stopped talking to push a wrinkle out of the shiny red cloth,

dragging her finger along the table edges, .'How long before those

men going to leave?" she asked her mother. Just as she spoke she

heard one of the men say something about getting some sleep. "I

didn't mean to run them away," she said, smiling. Her mother half-

smiled too. They listened for the sound of motors and tires and

waited for her father to shut the front door.

In a few seconds her father's head pushed through the curtain.

"Want me to turn down your bed now, Ellie?" She felt uncom-

fortable staring up at him, the whole family looked drained of all


"That's all right," she answered, "I'll sleep in Helen and Teenie's

bed tonight."

"How's Tommy?", he asked looking toward the bedroom. He

came in and sat down at the table with them.

They were silent before he spoke. "I keep wondering if we should

send him." He lit a match and watched the flame disappear into

the ashtray, then he looked into his wife's eyes. "There's no telling

what these fool white folks will do."

Her mother reached over and patted his hand, "We're doing what

we have to do, I guess," she said. "Sometimes though I wish the

others weren't so much older than him."

"But it seems so unfair," Ellie broke in, "sending him there all

by himself like that. Everybody keeps asking me why the MacAdams

didn't apply for their children."

      “Eloise" Her father's voice sounded curt. "We aren't answering

for the MacAdams, we're trying to do what's right for your brother.

He's not old enough to have his own say so. You and the others

could decide for yourselves, but we're the ones that have to do for


      She didn't say anything but watched him pull a handful of en-

velopes out of his pocket and tuck them in the cabil1ct drawer. She

knew that if anyone had told him in August that Tommy would be

the only one going to Jefferson Davis they would not have let him


      “Those the new ones?" she asked. "What they say?"

      “Let's not talk about the letters," her father said. "Let's go to bed."

      Outside they heard the rain become heavier. Since early evening

she had been accustomed to the sound. Now it blended in with

the rest of the noises that had accumulated in the back of her mind

since the whole thing began.

      As her mother folded the ironing board they heard the quiet

wheels of the police car. Ellie noticed that the clock said twelve-ten

and she wondered why they were early. Her mother pulled the iron

cord from the switch and they stood silently waiting for the police

car to turn around and pass the house again, as if the car's passing

were a final blessing for the night.

      Suddenly she was aware of a noise that sounded as if everything

had broken loose in her head at once, a loudness that almost shook

the foundation of the house. At the same time the lights went out

and il1stinctivcly her father knocked them to the floor. They could

hear the tinklil1g of glass near the front of the house and Tommy

began screaming.

      "Tommy, get down," her father yelled.

      She hoped he would remember to roll under the bed the way

they had practiced. She was aware of objects falling and breaking

as she lay perfectly still. Her breath was coming in jerks and then

there was a second noise, a smaller explosion but still drowning out

Tommy's cries.

      “Stay still," her father commanded. "I'm going to check on

Tommy. They may throw another one."

      She watched him crawl across the floor, pushing a broken flower

vase and an iron skillet out of his way. All of the sounds, Tommy's

crying, the breaking glass, everything was echoing in her cars. She

felt as if they had been crouching on the floor for hours but when

she heard the police car door slam, the luminous hands of tile clock

said only twelve-fifteen.

      She heard other cars drive up and pairs of heavy feet trample on

the porch. “You folks all right in there?"

      She could visualize the hands pulling open the door, because she

knew the voice. Sergeant Kearns had been responsible for patrolling

the house during the past three weeks. She heard him click the light

switch in the living room but the darkness remained intense.

      Her father deposited Tommy in his wife's lap and went to what

was left of the door. In the next fifteen minutes policemen were

everywhere. While she rummaged around underneath the cabinet

for a candle, her mother tried to hush up Tommy. His check was cut

where he had scratched himself on the springs of the bed. Her

mother motioned for her to dampen a cloth and put some petroleum

jelly on it to keep him quiet. She tried to put him to bed again but

he would not go, even when she promised to stay with him for the

rest of the night. And so she sat in the kitchen rocking the little boy

back and forth on her lap.

      Ellie wandered around the kitchen but the light from the single

candle put an eerie glow on the walls making her nervous. She be-

gan picking up pans, stepping over pieces of broken crockery and

glassware. She did not want to go into the living room yet, but if

she listened closely, snatches of the policemen's conversation came

through the curtain.

      She heard one man say that the bomb landed near the edge of the

yard, that was why it had only gotten the front porch. She knew

from their talk that the living room window was shattered com-

pletely. Suddenly Ellie sat down. The picture of the living room

window kept flashing in her mind and a wave of feeling invaded her

body making her shake as if she had lost all muscular control. She

slept on the couch, right under that window.

      She looked at her mother to see if she too had realized, but her

mother was looking down at Tommy and trying to get him to close

his eyes. Ellie stood up and crept toward the living room trying to

prepare herself for what she would see. Even that minute of de-

termination would not make her control the horror that she felt.

There were jagged holes all along the front of the house and the sofa

was covered with glass and paint. She started to pick up the picture

that had toppled from the book shelf, then she just stepped over the

broken frame.

      Outside her father was talking and, curious to see who else was

with him, she walked across the splinters to the yard. She could see

pieces of the geranium pot and the red blossoms turned face down.

There were no lights in the other houses on the street. Across from

their house she could see forms standing in the door and shadows

being pushed back and forth. “I guess the MacAdams are glad they

just didn’t get involved." No one heard her speak, and no one came

over to see if they could help; she knew why and did not really

blame them. They were afraid their house could be next.

      Most of the policemen had gone now and only one car was left

to flash the revolving red light in the rain. She heard the tall skinny

man tell her father they would be parked outside for the rest of the

night. As she watched the reflection of the police cars returning to

the station, feeling sick on her stomach, she wondered now why they


      Ellie went back inside the house and closed the curtain behind

her. There was nothing anyone could do now, not even to the house.

Everything was scattered all over the floor and poor Tommy still

would not go to sleep. She wondered what would happen when the

news spread through their section of town, and at once remembered

the mall in the grey Chevrolet. It would serve them right if her

father's friends got one of them.

      Ellie pulled up an overturned chair and sat down across from her

mother was crooning to Tommy. What Mr. Paul said was right,

white people just couldn't be trusted. Her family had expected any-

thing but even though they had practiced ducking, they didn't really

expect anybody to try tearing down the house. But the funny thing

was the house belonged to one of them. Maybe it was a good thing

her family were just renters.

      Exhausted, Ellie put her head down on the table. She didn't know

what they were going to do about tomorrow, in the day time they

didn't need electricity. She was too tired to think any more about

Tommy, yet she could not go to sleep. So, she sat at the table try-

ing to sit still, but every few minutes she would involuntarily twitch.

She tried to steady her hands, all the time listening to her mother's

Sing-songy voice and waiting for her father to come back inside the


      She didn't know how long she lay hunched against the kitchen

table, but when she looked up, her wrists bore the imprints of her

hair. She unfolded her arms gingerly, feeling the blood rush to her

fingertips. Her father, sat in the chair opposite her, staring at the

vacant space between them. She heard her mother creep away from

the table, taking Tommy to his room.

      Ellie looked out the window. The darkness was turning to grey

and the hurt feeling was disappearing. As she sat there she could be-

gin to look at the kitchen matter-of-factly. Although the hands of

the clock were just a little past five-thirty, she knew somebody was

going to have to start clearing up and cook breakfast.

      She stood and tipped across the kitchen to her parents' bedroom.

"Mama," she whispered, standing near the door of Tommy's room.

At the sound of her voice, Tommy made a funny throaty noise in

his sleep. Her mother motioned for her to go out and be quiet. Ellie

knew then that Tommy had just fallen asleep. She crept back to the

kitchen and began picking up the dishes that could be salvaged, be-

ing careful not to go into the living room.

      She walked around her father, leaving the broken glass underneath

the kitchen table. "You want some coffee?" she asked.

      He nodded silently, in strange contrast she thought to the water

faucet that turned with a loud gurgling noise. While she let the wa-

ter run to get hot she measured out the instant coffee in one of the

plastic cups. Next door she could hear people moving around in the

Williams' kitchen, but they too seemed much quieter than usual.

“You reckon everybody knows by now?" she asked, stirring the

coffee and putting the saucer in front of him.

"Everybody will know by the time the city paper comes out," he

said. "Somebody was here last night from the Observer.  Guess

it'11 make front page.”

She leaned against the cabinet for support watching him trace

endless circles in the brown liquid with the spoon, "Sergeant Kearns

says they'1l have almost the whole force out there tomorrow," he


"Today," she whispered.

Her father looked at the clock and then turned his head.

"When's your mother coming back in here?" he asked, finally pick-

ing up the cup and drinking the coffee.

"Tommy's just off to sleep," she answered. "I guess she'll be in

here when he's asleep for good."

She looked Out the window of the back door at the row of tan

hedges that had separated their neighborhood from the white peo-

ple for as long as she remembered. While she stood there she heard

her mother walk into the room. To her ears the steps seemed much

slower than usual. She heard her mother stop in front of her father's


      "Jim." she said, sounding very timid, "what we going to do?"

Yet as Ellie turned toward her she noticed her mother's face was

strangely calm as she looked down on her husband.

      Ellie continued standing by the door, listening to them talk. No-

body asked the question to which they all wanted an answer.

      "I keep thinking," her father said finally, "that the policemen

will be with him all day. They couldn't hurt him inside the school

buildinh without getting some of their own kind."

      "But he’ll be in there all by himself," her mother said softly. "A

hundred policeman can't be a little boy's only friends."

      She watched her father wrap his calloused hands, still splotched

with machine oil, around the salt shaker on the table.

      "I keep trying," he said to her, "to tell myself that somebody's

got to be the first one and then I just think how quiet he's been

all week.”

      Ellie listened to the quiet voices that seemed to be a room apart

from her. In the back of her mind she could hear phrases of a

hymn her grandmother used to sing, something about trouble, her

being born for trouble.

"Jim, I cannot let my baby go." Her mother's words, although

quiet, were carefully pronounced.

"Maybe," her father answered, "it's not in our hands. Reverend

Davis and I were talking day before yesterday how God tested the

Israelites, maybe he's just trying us."

"God expects you to take care of your own," his wife interrupted.

Ellie sensed a trace of bitterness in her mother's voice.

"Tommy's not going to understand why he can't go to school,"

her father replied. "He's going to wonder why, and how are we

going to tell him we're afraid of them?" Her father's hand clutched

the coffee cup. "He's going to be fighting them the rest of his life.

He’s got to start sometime."

"But he’s not on their level. Tommy's too little to go around

hating people. One of the others, they're bigger, they understand

about things."

Ellie still leaning against the door saw that the sun covered part

of the sky behind the hedges, and the light slipping through the

kitchen window seemed to reflect the shiny red of the table cloth.

      "He's our child," she heard her mother say. "Whatever we do,

we're going to be the cause." Her father had pushed the cup away

from him and sat with his hands covering part of his face. Outside

Ellie could hear a horn blowing.

      "God knows we tried but I guess there's just no use." Her father's

voice forced her attention back to the two people sitting in front

of her. "Maybe when things come back to normal, we’ll try again."

      He covered his wife's chunky fingers with the palm of his hand

and her mother seemed to be enveloped in silence. The three of

them remained quiet, each involved in his own thoughts, but re-

lated, Ellie knew, to the same thing. She was the first to break tile


"Mama," she called after a long pause, "do you want me to start

setting the table for breakfast?"

Her mother nodded.

Ellie turned the clock so she could sec it from the sink while

she washed the dishes that had been scattered over the floor.

"You going to wake up Tommy or you want me to?"

"No," her mother said, still holding her father's hand, “let him

sleep. When you wash your face, you go up the street and call

Hezekiah. Tell him to keep up with the children after school,

I want to do something to this house before they come home.”

She stopped talking and looked around the kitchen, filially turn-

ing to her husband. "He's probably kicked the spread off by now,"

she said. Ellie watched her father, who without saying anything

walked toward the bedroom.

She watched her mother lift herself from the chair and auto-

matically push in the stuffing underneath the cracked plastic cover.

Her face looked set, as it always did when she was trying hard to

keep her composure.

“He'll need something hot when he wakes up. Hand me the

oatmeal," she commanded, reaching on top of the icebox for

matches to light the kitchen stove.

“Neighbors”--Diane Oliver, The Sewanee Review, Copyright @ 1966 by Uni-

versity of the South.

Crumpled Notes (found in

   a raincoat_ on Selma        




you asked me

to tell you what I saw

that gray Sunday morning

of the first attempt to march on montgomery.


there was that pile

of rolled-up blankets,

taken off beds and wrapped up

with belts, or old ties, or string.


remember how we had laughed and said,

"and where will 'de lawd' get 10,000

blankets to sleep His multitude-

will He multiply them like loaves and fishes"


there they were

in the corner by the altar-

a patchwork mountain of rolled-up trust.


they were a rebuke-

a mountain of faith

that we had not fathomed

and that He would soon use.


"we are going"


spoke that patchwork mountain

in its unvalued dignity

(the 'dignity' that week

came from the cameras

and microphones

and press-carded vultures)



but in the strategy sessions

in the back office

they couldn't hear:


don't bother putting up that

50 mile radio antenna. ...

they won't mw past the bridge."


(i should have put it up-

it would have been my bedroll)



He won't be here,

but we'll take them down,

and they'll probably get gassed,

and that will be the victory

then we'll bring them back to the church."

(they didn't hear the old woman,


i guess we won't get too far,

but I'm going anyway,

we've got to start sometime.")


(i wonder what happened to that lady,

in the panic of hooves, bull whips and gas?)


"We are going" said the brown paper bags,

and toothbrushes

and sturdy old shoes.


but they couldn't hear

in those medical committee meetings.

not that they didn't want to--

but i couldn't tell from the detached,

clinical descriptions being professionally

murmured, whether they knew

what this war was like.


How did that quiet morning briefing...

"we can expect tear gas,

and mustard acid, gentlemen,

you know the treatment..."

match up to the afternoon's screaming horror

of body after body after body

slashed and gassed,

trampled and beaten.


(what does a man do

in this kind of war?)






They never said exactly why.


(and when He finally came

on the week anniversary

of Selma's humiliation on

the Edmund Pettus Bridge,

He never said WHY…

WHY he wasn't there.

He said, instead,

"just tell them,

the mayor and sheriff and all,

just tell them that ralph and martin are back.")


He didn't come

and they went without him.

Picked up their bedrolls,

umbrellas (we had laughed about

what 'de lawd' would do

if it rained)

and brown paper sacks with toothbrushes.


They lined up

and went to their red sea...

only this time there was no god

to part the sea of posse

and moses didn't show up.


I wonder would it have been different

had he been there?


Would they have touched him,

Would they have touched him,

he head anointed by the Powers

and their press?


but no matter...

a man is allowed his weak moments

and other christs always seem to rise up

to take their place,

many hundreds did that day.





There's one last thing remember.

i remember the man,

trembling in anger and rage

over the children seen under hooves,

the women standing, cowering under whips,

the men breaking and running in humiliation.


The man screamed for a march

on the courthouse--right then,

NOW, he said,





And the first to reach his side

and quiet him,

was not the sheriff

or the posse,

but a Man of the Word.


"That's not the Way

my son,

we've got to be disciplined, now.

Our leaders will tell us when to go."



he turned to that Man of God

and said, "I'm gonna get my gun"

and disappeared into the crowd.


March, 1965




Mississippi Winter


Tougaloo house has

escape windows (pretty pictures)

spring-splashed curtains

plants and flowers.


but they don't work

they can't keep out

mississippi winter.

black-body choked rivers

that fertilize each spring

close together

lynching trees

reaching with stark fingers

into the brilliant dawns.


mississippi winter

silts through your north door

and your mind

with numbing darkness

and a lot of afraid.

mississippi winter is

the dark side of the moon,

with space heaters lit

trying desperately to prove

that it's really earth.


mississippi winter

is that unexplainable rhythm

in madmen's minds when

the cracker starts murdering.

maybe it's the fever

0£ nothing to do after harvest...

maybe it's revenge saved up

whatever it is

it's not understood

even by the old wise ones.

but they'll tell you it always starts

around the end of harvest

and continues on into the drizzle-damp

terror spaces called night.


shot-gun blasts.

a shack blown to smithereens

deliberate hit and runs-

chain beatings, lynchings

continue on till planting.

not that they stop then....

(just slow down a little)


mississippi winter is

sleeping with your shot-gun cause

you turned evidence against

the cracker down the road,

or your name is on a suit against

the sheriff or a judge or a school board

the dogs know you're nervous

and bark a little more.

and the sun going down each night

signals the end 0£ the relief it brought

coming up.

but that terror is reserved

for the few

who fight.


for the rest,

mississippi winter is

to slow down

like the bear slows down to hibernate

mud won't let you go nowhere

car don't start no how

nowhere to go if it could-

except to the store

cept there's no money for the store.

kids don't go to school

no shoes

even if they had shoes

they'd just sleep anyway

cause they're hungry and

the school is warmer than home.

So keep them home

huddled around the wood stove in the bedroom.

but kids at least

are evidence of life.



One More River to Cross

For John L. Salter, Jr.


"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge"

wrote the author of the Declaration of Independence

"is one of the most stupendous scenes in nature"

In the midst of this stupendous scene

on the second day of December 1859

the sovereign state of Virginia

hanged old Osawatomie Brown

(strange confluence of rivers)

for holding certain truths to be self-evident

which had been first enunciated

by the greatest Virginian of them all

A bystander at the hanging

one Thomas J Jackson

was struck by the incongruity of Brown's

"white socks and slippers of predominating red"

beneath sober black garb more appropriate to the occasion

A frivolous touch that "predominating red"

or could it have been a portent

Thomas J soon-to-be dubbed "Stonewall" Jackson?

"Across the river and into the trees" you babbled

only four years later

while your blood ebbed away

ironically shot by one of your own

But it is still the second of December 1859

and you glowing with the vigor of a man in his prime

are watching while the body of Brown swings slowly

to and fro

in a cold wind off the mountains

for exactly 37 minutes before it is cut down

In less than half so many months

Thomas J Jackson

this stupendous scene plus 24,000 contiguous square miles

will no longer be Virginia

Its blue-uniformed sons will be ranged against you

in the Army of the Potomac singing

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave

but his soul goes marching on"

Now you my friend

so akin in spirit to the earlier John

I have been seeing your picture in the papers

your head anointed with mustard and ketchup

at the lunch-counter sit-in

hoodlums rubbing salt in the cuts where they slugged you

or the police flailing you with clubs

blood sopping your shirt

but pure downright peace on your face

making a new kind of history

Now the people Harper's Weekly called

"this good-humored good-for-nothing half monkey race"

when John Brown sought to lead them out of bondage

are leading us toward that America

Thomas Jefferson foresaw and Abraham Lincoln

who once again sprawls dying in his theatre box

(Why must we always kill our best?)

The dastard in the bushes spots the crossed hairs

squeezes the trigger and Medgar Evers pitches

forward on his face while the assassin scuttles

into the night his beady rat's eyes seeking where to hide

his incriminating weapon with the telescopic sight

He heaves it into the tangled honeysuckle

and vanishes into the magnolia darkness

"God Sees the Truth But Waits"

The sickness is loosed now into the whole body politic

the infection spreading from South to North and West

"States Rights" "Freedom of Choice" "Liberty of the


Trojan horse phrases with armed enemies within

In the name of rights they would destroy all rights

put freedom to death on the pretext of saving it

Under the cover of Jeffersonian verbiage

these men move to destroy the Constitution

they feign to uphold

but their plots will miscarry

Who knows but that some unpainted shack in the Delta

may house one destined to lead us the next great step of

the way

From the Osawatomie to the "Patowmac"

The Alabama Tombigbee Big Black Tallahatchie and Pearl

and down to the Mississippi levee in Plaquemines Parish

it's a long road

better than a hundred years in traveling

and now the Potomac again...


Summer, 1963

Ballad of Birmingham


Dudley Randall


(On the bombing of a church in Binningham, Alabama, 1963)


"Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?"


"No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren't good for a little child."


"But, mother, I won't be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free."


No, baby, no, you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to the church instead

And sing in the children's choir."


She has combed and brushed he night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.


The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.


For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.


She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

"0, here's the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?"

Abelardo Delgado


stupid America

      Sometimes a poet jolts his readers to attention by

      taunting them, With his repeated first line and with a

      careful structure of examples and details Abelardo

      Delgado moves the reader along to the unforgettable

      closing lines, which disturb with their tragedy and

      truth. Abelardo, as he is usually known was born in

      Mexico but came to live in Texas in 1943. Presently on

      the faculty at the University of Utah, he has worked as

      a community organizer and has written extensively.   


stupid america, see that chicano

with a big knife

in his steady hand

he doesn't want to knife you

he wants to sit on a bench

and carve christ figures

but you won't let him.

stupid america, hear that chicano

shouting curses on the street

he is a poet

without paper and pencil

and since he cannot write

he will explode.

stupid america, remember that chicanito

flunking math and english

he is the picasso

of your western states

but he will die

with one thousand masterpieces

hanging only from his mind.



Mississippi Field


In Mississippi, at noon

with the group of morning butterflies,

you can sit down in the field.


The mockingbirds will sing

The air will blow on you

and on the warm weeds.


You can touch the bugs.


In the field sun

you can sit down with your friend

and somebody can come shoot you both.



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