January 18, 2009

I Saw Something

In the fall of 1962 I went down to Tallahassee, Florida, to visit my best friend. My family had moved to Charlotte, and I missed Tallahassee. Although I'd been away only a few months, a great deal had changed. My friend, a tall, lanky, Ethiopian-looking Jew, had sprouted an Afro and was--as I was in Charlotte--involved in the Civil Rights movement. Tallahassee, though, offered more opportunities for involvement since it had been the site of constant activism already for several years. Voter registration drives, lunch counter demonstrations in the Woolworth's downtown. One weekend, the year before, rumors had spread that busloads of "outside agitators" were coming to town, and a local hardware-store owner, probably helped by the police, handed out ax-handles well before opening time to truckloads of men from the surrounding countryside. My father said, "I want you to see something," and we set out together in his little imported car, driving in widening circles through Tallahassee and around it. On most streetcorners stood young men who seemed like giants to me, with unusually long arms; they were right out of Swamp Thing. Plaid flannel shirts, unbuttoned cuffs because the sleeves were too short, faded jeans, heads too small for their topheavy bodies. Each of them held a shiny new ax-handle, loosely, easily, as if it were a baseball bat. The flatbed trucks were still unloading the boys downtown. 

By the time I returned that fall, Tallahassee's civil rights movement was a much larger and diverse network than before. My friend said, "I want you to see something," and we drove to Frenchtown, the section of Tallahassee behind the Supreme Court where blacks, then called colored people, lived in little white clapboard houses set on brick pillars. We stopped at a large church, a brick or stucco building with a tin roof. 

Inside, we were the only whites. My friend with his afro stood out from the crowd less than I did with my collegiate crewcut and red hair. We sat in the gallery; the church was overflowing. Below us I saw a sea of shining black bald heads on scrawny necks too small for their starched shirt collars. All the elders of the black churches thereabouts seemed to be present. The air was thick with excitement, but there wasn't a lot of noise yet. 

One after another, preachers from other churches went up to the pulpit and gave sermons, showing off their best stuff, as if this were a preaching contest. In a way, it was. When one of them made a good point, people in the congregation would raise a hand palm-out and say, "Well!" It was a long night, but though things moved slowly, it wasn't boring. We all felt the anticipation, although I didn't know what was coming.

Then came the last speaker. This was what my friend had wanted me to see. It was Dr. King, who stood at the podium without notes and gave the most powerful speech of the evening, full of his characteristic cadences and rising to a crescendo of repetitive sentences. He would have been the best orator in any setting, anywhere, any time. Well!

No comments:

Post a Comment