Now and Then

Buildings burning, and cars set ablaze with policemen inside, filled every screen of the television that night of May 29, 2020. “The Breaking News” was the riot that followed the murder by police brutality of George Floyd, a young black man. A few weeks earlier, another black man suffered the same fate when a citizen’s arrest turned deadly.

The charges against the police officers and the civilians involved in these murders did not match the crimes, and this is what angered the black community who marched and rioted in the streets, because the law was not on their side. Had it ever been?  It was another page in “Black Lives Matter,” the slogan addressing police brutality against black people for many years now.

It was also the Covid-19 Pandemic. People were dying from a virus, and the economy shutdown when the government ordered the population to shelter in place. Unemployment was at its highest. The working poor and the homeless were the most affected, and they were largely from the black community. The uncertainty of how long the virus would last added heat to the summer’s approach.

For three days I watched young people marching in the streets all across the country, trying to make a difference, and I am reminded of another time of social unrest in the history of the people of color.

It was a simpler time in the early sixties, at least it seemed that way to me when I was thirteen years old living on Highway 11 in rural Georgia.

In the summertime, Mother ran a veritable food processing plant in our kitchen. We used all the fruits and vegetables grown on the four acres surrounding our modest brick home.          Everyday something cooked on the stove or dripped from a bag that hung on a cabinet knob over a catch pan. Black-eyed peas, butter beans, and corn were frozen. Glass jars of tomato soup lined the counter tops, their Ball Dome lids popping when sealed. Grapes, apples, and strawberries were cooked and dripped into jellies and jams.

Mother and Aunt Dovie made wine from scuppernong grapes. Grandma’s figs and pears made sweet preserves. Every year the trees in the front yard dropped pecans that we shelled into one-quart plastic bags and stored in a freezer that took up all the space in the storage room off the kitchen porch.

Mother sat shelling butter beans into a metal basin on her lap while watching a soap opera, never looking at her hands.

“Can I change the channel?”

“No. I’m watching my program. Get outside and play. Don’t come back till supper,” she said.

I batted the ball around the yard and played tag with my brother and sister till suppertime at five o’clock.

Mother cooked the butterbeans and fried a pan of pork chops. She made biscuits in a wooden bread bowl. First sifting the flour, then adding a scoop of Crisco with her fingers. She poured in sweet milk, by her measure, squeezing the mixture between her fingers, slowly picking up more flour until a ball formed. Then she pinched a small piece, rolled it, flattened it, and placed it on the bread pan. We had biscuits every night.

“Stir those butter beans for me,” she said.

“With what?” I tested her patience.

“With your finger.” Mother gave me a hard look. “Go to the garden and get some scallions,” she ordered.

I ran out the back door, slamming the screen, and jumped off the small brick porch. The garden was just past the pump-house and the clothesline. Sometimes she asked me to fetch other raw vegetables from the garden like tomatoes, cantaloupe, or watermelon. We roasted peanuts or boiled them for a snack. If we had a big crop, Jack Queens’s Grocery bought the surplus.

Jack and Grace Queen, friends of my parents, owned a grocery store a short distance down Highway 11. Their business grew over the years, and they opened Jack Queen’s #2 on the edge of town in the black neighborhood.

And that easy lifestyle began to change.

In 1962 a prevailing sense of doom washed over the country during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the news every night, we watched the standoff between President John Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the Russian buildup of missiles, ninety miles off our shore.       Kennedy gave a deadline to dismantle or go to war. In the countdown of those days, America grew more anxious. We went about our business with a heightened sense of impending ruin.

Aunt Dovie had a bomb shelter—a closet stocked with canned goods, water, a transistor radio, and batteries. Some people converted their root cellars into shelters. At Walker Park Elementary, we practiced getting under our desk during a bomb scare. In the cities, the yellow triangle logo marked concrete fallout shelters.

Khrushchev let every day tick by until the deadline passed. Schools turned out early, and anxious bus drivers hurried everyone home. We huddled around the television for the six o’clock news with Walter Cronkite.

Dad leaned on the edge of the green vinyl sofa with his feet up. Mother sat on the other end with her legs folded beside her. My brother Wayne, my sister Valerie, and I sprawled on the wood floor, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the news.

Wayne threw his arm around my neck, and the wrestling began. Valerie got kicked as we bonked each other’s head on the floor, laughing at the noise. Then Valerie took off, sliding in her sock feet, crashing us into the chair that banged into the paneled wall, leaving a dent. We wrestled with pent up energy left over from a day at school as our parents watched passively.

Then loudly, “Quiet,” Dad said. “The news is on.”

The large TV had only three channels and was housed in a wood cabinet with doors swung open. Walter Cronkite stared back at us through the Sylvania picture tube.

“The crisis is over. Cuba is dismantling the missiles,” Cronkite said.

“The Kremlin said JFK was a paper tiger,” Cronkite reported, ‘But the tiger has teeth,’ was Khrushchev’s reply.’”

The next year President Kennedy was assassinated.

I sat in an eighth grade math class when the principal made the announcement over the intercom. “President Kennedy has been shot.”

Big John Fuller turned in his seat and spoke loudly. “Good, I hope he dies.”

The next announcement came quickly. “The President of the United States has died.”

“He deserved it,” John said.

That was my first introduction to politics.

On television I saw Lyndon Baines Johnson sworn into office on an airplane with blood- splattered Jacqueline Kennedy by his side, the funeral procession with two small children watching their father’s horse-drawn caisson, little John John’s impromptu salute, and Jackie’s kiss goodbye to the flag-draped coffin—images burned in my memory forever.

Earlier that same year of 1963, President Kennedy had asked his Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to help organize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s march on Washington so there would be no violence. That was when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech. The crowds loved him.

As a Baptist minister from Atlanta, King organized peaceful marches and advocated nonviolence. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was pivotal in ending legal segregation of African American citizens, as well as creating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.      Meanwhile, racial integration stirred angry debate in the South. Lester Maddox, who would become Governor of Georgia wielded an axe handle and threatened to bash black heads who tried to integrate his restaurant.

We were shaken by the violence, a country in revolt, but time went on. The marches continued, and the police used billy clubs to disperse the crowds. On the news every night there were beatings and water hosings of black people. It seemed far away in the cities, certainly not on Highway 11. Here, the blacks kept to themselves except maybe to sell moonshine or to clean someone’s house.

My dad drove to a house deep in the woods for moonshine. Down a dirt road, the house sat in a clearing. It stood on rock pilings. Dogs lounged about in the yard.

“Stay in the car.” Dad slammed the door.

We three kids, ages eight, six, and four, sat in the back seat of that 1939 Buick Roadmaster convertible. Peering out the window, we watched our father walk up the broken wood steps to the bare porch.            He disappeared inside the darkness of the open door to make the transaction. After a few minutes, little black faces peeked out. They looked to be our age.

One by one, they stood in the doorway, stuck out their tongue, and disappeared back inside. A barefoot boy came first, maybe eight years old, wearing white shorts and no shirt. Next came a girl with braids framing her face. She wore a white dress made from a flour sack. We could tell it was once a flour sack because we could see part of the upside down “Pride of Sussex” logo. A younger boy wearing a white shirt and shorts stepped into the doorway, and the little girl came last, a two-year-old, also in a flour sack dress. Like the others, she stuck out her tongue then went back inside.

The kids reappeared, standing side by side in a row across the porch—a parade of pink tongues against black faces. We laughed as our father walked down the steps with his purchase.

Minnie the black maid walked up and down Highway 11 to help a few housewives with their babies. She helped Mother sometimes, but we had no money for her, just food and clothes. Some people had a little money to give her

“Minnie put Wayne back in his diaper, and he was doing so good on the pot,” Mother complained.

In 1964, The Civil Rights Act ordered that all schools and public places desegregate. Rather than integrate, city pools closed because no one wanted to swim with the black kids.

I did most of my swimming in Uncle Perry Hugh’s pond, but I swam in our city pool a few times before it closed. A huge pool with a diving board, concession stand, and large bathrooms with showers now stood closed to the public. All the white children felt punished along with the black kids.

During integration, Superintendent of Schools Clyde Pearce built the first backyard pool in Walton County. My brother and his friends helped build the pool, so we had an open invitation to come swim. There was no such alternative for the black children.

A powerful man, Clyde Pearce was President of the Mountain Creek Baptist Church congregation and led the vote on what to do if a black family wanted to come to our church. As God-fearing Christians, we voted to let them in, but they never came.

The members of the black community of Monroe were reluctant integrationists. They preferred to keep to themselves and lead anonymous undramatic lives. They kept their heads down and never wanted to involve the police because they had no rights.

I remember riding in my friend’s car when she backed into a parked car that belonged to a black man. We got out to examine the damage.

“I’m sorry,” Debbie said, staring at the dent in the fender. Do you want me to call the police and make a report?” she asked.

“No. Your car is fine. You just go on. I’ll take care of this,” he said and waved us on.

The integration of Monroe High School was a careful process. Under the direction of Clyde Pearce, three black students were hand-selected for this awful duty. They were the smartest, and most likely to succeed in a hostile environment.

Precious Journeygone, Dorcus Waters, and Castille Avery, the lone boy, entered the all –white Monroe High School in 1964. They were scared rabbits, waiting for the first shout of “nigger” or the slug of a fist.

Most of the white kids felt sorry for their predicament and tried to give them peace if not acceptance. There was one loudmouth, David Malcolm, who shouted in Castille’s face.

“You have ruined my senior year.”

It was also my brother’s senior year.

Castille, who was taller, stared him down, waiting. David backed off.

Precious’s eyes fixed on her books as she sat in my tenth grade classroom. She wore a plaid shirt waist dress with pleats ironed to perfection. The cream in her hair straightened it to the popular bubble style. Everyone watched her, trying to get her attention, but she sat quietly. The occasional spit ball landed on her desk. She ignored it.

The teacher called out her name.

“Here,” she answered in a deep voice.

Everyone laughed. The next day she didn’t answer the roll. The teacher knew she was there. We all knew she was there. Not everyone was hostile to her, but everyone was curious.

Elaine Dial, the class clown, was the first to engage her. When the teacher wasn’t in the room, she talked to Precious out loud to entertain everyone.

“Precious, what are you doing?”

“Can I borrow your comb?”

“Precious, you forgot to shave your legs last night.”

One day Elaine pulled black fuzz off her friend’s sweater and stuck it to the armpit of her own yellow cardigan, so it looked like hair. She raised her arm and turned to Precious. “Precious, this is what your armpit looks like.” She pointed with her # 2 yellow pencil.

Smiling, teasing, we watched Precious’ reaction. She sat stony faced for a few seconds then cracked into a laugh. We made our first black connection. We all laughed as Mrs. Robinson strolled back into the classroom.

Ol’ Lady Robinson was a tough old bird. She wore spiked heels, slim skirts, with fitted jackets, red lipstick, and tight curls. She had a pointed nose, eyeglasses with pointed frames, her shoes had pointed toes, and her red fingernails were filed to point.

Tall in her seat, she could see everyone from her chair. One look from her, and we were busted. Other teachers we reduced to a frustration of tears, but not Mrs. Robinson. She stopped us with a word or a look.

Our assignment that day was to recite, in front of the class, the preamble to the Gettysburg address.

It was Precious’ turn to go. She stood there looking out to the sea of white faces, some angry, some waiting for her to make a mistake so they could laugh. Standing there for a few seconds, she took a breath and opened her mouth. We waited, but no words came out. She lowered her head and cried. I wanted to cry too.

Mrs. Robinson quickly came to her side and hugged her. She walked Precious back to her seat, speaking quietly to her. No one made a sound as we realized the huge responsibility on the shoulders of that young girl chosen to integrate our school.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth to this land a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It was a powerful lesson in history class that day.

A more powerful lesson was yet to come.

In 1968, while preparing for a march in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with his associates, and he was assassinated. No one was surprised, not even King, but the country mourned the passing of the fearless civil rights leader. Senator Bobby Kennedy, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for presidency, died by an assassin’s bullet two months later.

Three leaders of our country, who tried to advance the black population, were assassinated.

The violence continues today, fifty-six years later, as I watch young black men in America run from the police when they are arrested. They fear they will die in police custody, and it happens often.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement crosses national borders in the same way the Pandemic does. Maybe the Pandemic has had a part in the uprising. All across the world marginalized citizens in many countries march for social justice.

It is my hope that this new movement will make a difference in the lives of our black countrymen. And that the Pandemic fog lifts for everyone.

About the Author
Judy Benowitz is a creative writer in Cartersville, Georgia with an MA in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University, in Georgia where she was Who’s Who among Students in American Universities and Colleges in 2016. She is the 2015 Creative Writing Contest winner in The Georgia Writers Museum, and her stories appear in GRITS (Girls Raised in the South), the Atlanta Jewish Times, and the Georgia Writers Association among others.
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