“... And we now take a moment in silence to remember Jimmie Lee Jackson … though he died just over a week ago, he still lives on in our hearts … may he rest in peace … amen.”
“Amen,” we echoed.
Mama twisted the knob of the radio until the static cut off and the voice of the preacher died down. We cried out all of our tears when news of Jimmie reached our ears. I looked up at my mom. She returned my glance with a musing look as she pushed the radio antennae back into place. Her dark olive skin, glossy black curls, and heart-shaped face stared back at me. I bit my lip and stared at the ground. Her features were so like my own, but when they were on my face, I looked plain ugly.
My thoughts were broken by my brother calling me to dinner. I hadn't even realized everyone had left the living room, but saw them all as soon as I turned the corner into our dimly lit dining room. I sat down in my usual seat, to the right of my father, journalist James Jones, and across from my older brother and mama.
My mama rose to serve the meat lasagna, and gave my father the biggest portion, and my brother a larger one than my own. My mama always gave my brother the best of everything because he was their favorite.
George is perfect. He didn’t cry when he was born; he just smiled with his perfect dimples. Dimples that, when he smiled at you, made you feel like the most special person in the whole wide world. He is good at school, too, and the worst grade he had was a B+ last semester in science. But who can do well in science? He’s also the center of the varsity basketball team, and has a real nice girlfriend named Jane.
“So that’s how I’m going to be giving myself in our community as an African-American citizen…” my brother said animatedly, “... now I’m a member of SNCC … peaceful protest next week.” I cleaned my plate real nicely, using my fingers to scoop up the last chunks of tomato in the marinara. My father’s voice rumbled like an earthquake.
“George, your ma and I are real proud of you. It’s so good to know we have at least one child in this family helping our Negro brothers and sisters.” I felt all of the eyes turn to my downcast head.
Then I remembered. Before Jimmie Lee Jackson’s memoriam, we had been reminded to be in attendance of this Sunday’s “church.” Sure, church is dandy, but this Sunday is special. We’re going to march! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is leading a whole lot of us Negroes to Montgomery, Alabama where we’re going to going to shout right in the politicians’ faces “Let us vote!” It’ll go down in history. And then, when I’m famous, my parents will have to love me more than George. So I cleared my throat and announced with a tone as saucy as dinner I said,
“Well that’s great, George, but I’m going to do something that’ll actually help our people. Why this Sunday, I’ma meet Dr. King!” This got my parent’s attention.
“Rosie,” My mother warned.
“It’s okay, mama! I swear, no harm’s gonna come to your little baby.” Looking at her face, I could tell that hadn’t been what he was worried about. Slightly crestfallen, I continued a little more quietly. “It’s peaceful, ma. Just walking, which I can do real fine, and have been for a long time...” My father held up his hand, signaling for me to stop.
“Rose. We love you a lot, but Alabama isn’t a safe place to be black. This family loves the color of our skin, but haven’t you noticed? All of the ‘whites only signs’? This state doesn’t.”
“Sweetheart,” my mother started, “You’re also too young, and you could just make it worse. Our current predicament, I mean.” And of course George had to join the conversation, too.
“I’ve heard about the march tomorrow, which I’m pretty sure Rose is referring to,” He announced smugly, and pushed his sleek black glasses up his nose. I wanted to smack them off of his stupid face.“SNCC is going to be participating, but I’ve deemed it best for me not to partake in this event because there have been some rumors State Troopers will be interfering.”
All of the sudden, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. My father pushed his chair back, which screeched against the wood floor. He stood up, towering over our dinner table at 6 feet 4 inches tall.
“I will have no child of mine going even within a 100 meters of a damn State Trooper! Did you hear what they did to Charlie? Charlie Brook? He was my coworker, but he don’t come to work no more. Do you know why? DO YOU KNOW WHY?” My father was screaming now, his usually handsome face pinched and flush.
“No, sir.” George and I mumbled.
“They killed him!” my father’s hysterical voice now edged on tears. He stormed out of the room, but we could still hear his sobs through the thin walls.
“Mr. Brook’s head got a real good bashing. There were a trio of troopers who threw him a bunch of times up against the brick walls until he was bleeding and unconscious. They said to your father and his colleagues: ‘If any of you filthy negroes try to help him, why, you can be helping him up in heaven too.’” My mother whispered. “And your father said each of them couldn’t’ve been a day over twenty-one.”
“ Maybe the Troopers are only a rumor?” I stammered. My mother shook her head.
“Uh, uh. You ain’t goin’ nowhere, young lady.”
“No buts!” she yelled. I guess Pa’s outburst had affected everyone. “Go to your room!”
I heard my parents arguing late that night. After half an hour or so the yells died down, and all in the house was silent. So, seeing as I’d have to escape, I decided to pack myself a bag so in the morning I could just grab it and go. I turned the knob of my door oh so slowly, as to not wake anyone up, and slipped out of my room. The soft parts of my feet made little sound as I padded through the hallway, trailing my hand along the wall.
I finally reached the kitchen. The floors in there were covered in linoleum, and the counter tops were rows of tile stained with dark red splotches. It looked like something from a horror picture. I rustled around various boxes, bags, and cans in our cabinets until I found the ones I wanted. Peanut butter and jelly. Perfect. I grabbed the bag of Wunderbread off of the counter and got to work. Once I finished making two perfect sandwiches, I sliced them each into two right angle shapes and stuffed them all in a bag. Then, I reached for the door of our fridge. But just as the cool air hit me did the lights flick on.
“Rose?” It was Pa. I turned slowly, taking care that the sandwiches were hidden behind my back.
“Dad! You scared me,” I said. I slid the sandwich bag up the back of my nightgown.
“What are you doing?”
“Just grabbing a midnight snack,” I stammered, plucking a banana from the fruit bowl. I started to leave, but Pa caught my arm.
“Rose, please sit down,” he said, gesturing to the table, “I just want to talk to you about earlier today. I’m sorry I yelled. I just don’t want anyone in this family getting hurt. Baby girl, when you even scrape your knee, why, it kills me to see you in pain, you get that? This life is only worth living if I have George and you.”
I felt nice, fat drops start to roll down my cheeks. I reached out to console my father, tell him I wasn’t going to go, but stopped. My hand shook as I pulled it back. I had to avoid looking at Pa because it hurt my heart to see him like this. He had his head in his hands, and eyes squinted shut. Slowly, I stood, and kissed my father on his cheek.
“I love you, Daddy.”
I ran back to my room, and shut the door. The sandwiches and banana fell out of my pajamas, sitting in a pile next to me. My back slumped against the door as I continued to cry, only more freely this time. But no matter how much I thought about how this would hurt my family, I kept thinking of the Negro children of tomorrow, whose very lives would be greatly affected by the decision I would make. What would I do?
The next morning, my alarm woke me at 8:00 am. I sat up, rubbing bleariness from my eyes and lamely trying to smooth down my hair. I opened my dresser, grabbed my jumper and threw it on. I shouldered my school bag stuffed with sandwiches, a banana, and two jackets and exited my room quietly.
“Going to the library, eh Rosie?” I cringed. I had been dreading confrontation with my parents.
“Do you promise? I don’t want you anywhere near that church, you hear?”
“I … I… I swear on Donna’s life!” Donna was my pet goldfish, who unbeknownst to my mother, had died two weeks ago. How was I supposed to know chocolate is not good for fish? She stared at me long and hard, but finally relented.
“Be back soon, young lady, or they’ll be consequences.” I nodded, halfway out the door. I headed for our Tabernacle Baptist Church and filtered into the sea of brown. We all crammed into the building, and I found that there were at least a good 500 Negroes. John Lewis, one of the SNCC guys George raved about stood up on a pew, alongside Dr. King.
“Attention!” John Lewis yelled. The whole church quieted, but the semi-high ceilings still carried small echoes of noise. “Thank you. Dr. King and I would like to thank you all for coming. I’m sure you all know why you’re here,” he continued, pausing for the crowd to erupt into cheers and excited murmurs, “so let’s not waste time rambling on about you all know. We’re attempting to make a 54 mile march, but it may be dangerous. Parents, please keep your children close,” then his face turned up, “For freedom!” The room became chaotic with excitement and over the flush of people I caught a glimpse of Dr. King’s grin, and for some reason, it made me go crazy happy, too. We flooded into the streets, led by Dr. King, Mr. Lewis, and some other important-looking men who I didn’t know.
We walked in silence. It seems like everyone knew something was off. Our fears were confirmed as we approached Edmund Pettus Bridge. I saw lines and lines of blue. State Troopers. I hated to admit it, but George was right. Anxious whispers rocketed through the crowd. Maybe they all had Charlies of their own. Mr. Lewis raised up his hand and we all halted. He began to speak, and though he wasn’t shouting, I bet everyone in our crowd and even the troopers could hear him loud and clear.
“We’re going to keep going. Be strong.” And with just a few words we had the courage of lions. We marched onto the bridge. Every step felt like walking on the moon; it was surreal. One small step for a Negro, but one huge leap for our people. My feet seemed to plod mechanically, passing half a yard with every stride. Suddenly a megaphone crackled, and the sheriff’s voice blared across the last 200 yards we had until we would stand with the Troopers.
“Negroes of Selma. The United States Government orders yous to stop. If you continue, violent measures will be used to, erm, keep all of yous in check.” I think he may have been a little drunk because he said all of his “yous” sounded like “ooze.” We continued after our leaders, but with more caution. My gut was telling me to run, but I want fight for my rights, so my feet advanced.
The first Troopers carried plastic shields with emblems of the United States government stickered onto them. The next had beating sticks, and the ones behind them held rifles or funny rounded cylinders. The beaters and cylinders ran forward, breath clouding their masks. Suddenly, they twisted the cylinders and threw them. People screamed as white clouds erupted. It was some kind of toxic gas. They were trying to kill us.
I tried to push my way through the crowd, but we were as dense as a pack of sardines in a can. The gas nipped at my back, stinging my skin. I was scrambling alongside a boy who was probably sixteen. His breath was coming out in ragged bursts. I glanced over at my running companion, and we shared a look of pure terror. Then he bit his lip and stuck his leg out. Suddenly, I was on the pavement, my head throbbing and stars in my eyes. I rolled onto my stomach, easing the side pain I felt where my shirt had been ripped and replaced with gravel and scratches. That boy had tripped me.
My head and chest hurt bad. A trooper stood over me and started kicking me all over. His blows to my head hurt most. He chanted,
When he was called off, I crawled to the side of the bridge and rolled down the dirt to the cool, concrete pavement. I just laid there. I wanted to die, my body hurt so bad. Curling myself into a ball, I cursed that boy. My ears rang and my eyes watered. I smelled blood. Then, I felt real tired. Really tired. Just a little nap, I thought to myself. I didn’t even have to count any sheep.
I woke up in my bed. My throat was so dry. My mother, who was holding my hand and praying, eyes squinted shut, screeched when I said ‘Mama?’
“She’s up! She’s up!” Suddenly a thunder of footsteps came, and my brother and father came running in. My mother was whispering softly, in her smooth voice cracked with sobs,
“Thank you Jesus. Thank you, lord, for answering my prayers. Thank you.”
“Don’t you ever do that again, Rose!” My father’s face was angry, but I saw a sad smile in his eyes. I sad smiled back. We didn’t win. We didn’t even get to march more than a mile or yell at the politicians. But if anything was sure for me, it was that I wasn’t going to stop fighting anytime soon.