Sunday, July 23, 1965. Downtown, Tuskegee, Alabama. Corner of Williams and 2nd.
It was four blocks from Nelson’s Pharmacy to the church. Longer blocks I have never walked. George Zwern, white from Baltimore, came with us; he had muscular dystrophy and hobbled pretty bad. Sixteen blacks and us two. Tyson and Nimrod and Gwen up front, defiant and proud. The five women all wore crosses, polished, and catching the heavy morning Alabama sun. I was already pretty wet under my arms. We were, perhaps, non-violent, but it felt like a Marine battalion. Very somber. Eighteen feet hit the sidewalk, and then the other eighteen. I counted six police cars, two men in each. For once I was glad they were present. As the sun came over the top of Mitchel’s Hardware, it lit the face of the white Baptist church — the head of the crucified saviour. Tension mounted as step by step we approached the door. Out of a second-story window a television camera peered. Eight concrete steps. I was on the fourth when Nimrod pulled at the door. (Although Tyson was the spokesman, Nimrod was the public figure, because Tyson had a viper’s moves and venom to match.) As expected the door was locked.
“Brothers and Sisters of God, open the doors that we may enter and worship.”
A nervous voice from within replied, “This is the white Baptist church. If you wish to pray, go to the colored church.”
“It is not a church of color, but it is God’s church. Let us in that we may be one family together, under the one spirit. Let us enter in Jesus’ name.”
“Go away! You know the races were never meant to mingle. Let us pray in peace without further interruption. No colored foot will ever enter this church!”
“We have come as a mixed group of both white people and black; we will stay here, day and night, until you open your doors!”
In 1969, if there were hippies, I was one. I thought LSD was milk, and marijuana honey. And that this was the Promised Land. Mid-morning I showered, put on the coffee pot, read and wrote poetry, perused the Village Voice for free movies and concerts. Of course, this was New York, an unavoidable rite of passage. Tompkins Square Park, corner of 10th and Avenue B — a lower class jumble of Puerto Ricans, Poles, junkies, blacks, hippies, Slavs. Just a jumpshot away from my second story window, the community basketball court — my first and foremost love. Integration livewired through our society in those days — by which I mean you had to be a fairly surefooted Caucasian to sidle out on the cement court. Which I am (or was). Five-foot nine, I was all-conference halfback at Amherst College, endowed by the Creator with uncanny quickness, plumb line center of gravity, and springloaded legs. Around ten, Saturday mornings, some of the best athletes of the city would show up at the park, including an occasional member of the Knicks. I didn’t mind being shoved a little extra, or being called “white fucker”; it was all fun and education. Onlookers gathered around the fenced-in court for the next challenge, smoking weed, sipping out of brown-paper sacks, the Miracles or Otis Redding blasting out.
What form of the homo sapiens did sail to Africa, chain and shackle the natives, dividing child and parent, and transport them to the Southern States (tossing overboard the two-thirds who died in voyage), selling the remaining bodies to the highest bid? Is this an act of God? In ’63 the Emancipation Proclamation; two years later Lincoln was killed. As the new civil rights movement was getting a head of steam Kennedy was shot. When I look around the world today at international intercourse (i.e., oil profiteering, Central American wargames, U.S. farmers paid not to grow grain while 57,000/day starve, general nuclear warhead juggling), I am glut with incomprehension. But why shouldn’t the great ones be killed? Witches burned? How can one walk openly on the earth like Gandhi with honor? We fester in our bodies. Angry as cockroaches on cast-iron skillets. Life is so full of sorrow and frustration. We sally forth to witness the blessing of pain.
I never believe newspapers. I definitely am one who must put his finger in the wound. In 1965 while still at Amherst, I got a phone call: did I want to go to Alabama in the summer and tutor black high school students so they could get into college? A chance to grab the rhinoceros by the horn. So with three other whites, June ’65, Blue Ford Mustang, I made the Eastern seaboard run, dipping into Florida, avoiding speedtraps, arriving two days later in Tuskegee, Alabama. In order to receive Federal funds all universities had to open their doors “equally” to all races. Including black ones like Tuskegee. They weren’t blacks yet; Negro was still the word employed. I was the only one of the other kind in the dormitory where I slept. It took me a week to realize when I took a piss I was always alone in the bathroom. Turns out that I was the first white that any of the students had seen up close. An identified specimen. What was I doing in their hallway? Would I move in next door and marry their sister? Every morning at breakfast (reconstituted eggs, crusts of bacon, cold toast, saturated with lard), I met my three colleagues, who worked at a local high school from nine to four. It was so incredibly hot that I was glad to be indoors. But around five or so the heat would begin to bend. Taking an alternative route home I happened upon the outdoor basketball courts. Ah! A way in. Went back to the dorm, picked up my sneaks, summoned all my courage, and headed back out. Well, I stood on the sidelines and watched the descendants from New World slaves sweat and jump and curse and play some very outrageous ball. I just stood there like a bump on a log, that had somehow sprouted out of the blacktop. Very anemic looking. “You wanna play?” Now I’ve mentioned already that a basketball hoop is about as close to anything I call home. These guys could shoot the black eyes out of peas, but they weren’t much on team effort, which is what you learn if you’re raised in the world I was. We were playing three on three, winners stay on. And me and the other two guys beat ’em all. Afterwards one guy on my team said, “Why don’t you come around to the TIAL [Tuskegee Institute Alliance] meeting?” This sounded like the real stuff.
We had been advised in advance not to mix into local politics, keep a low profile, don’t aggravate the white community, etc. If you recall those times — signaled by the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy — the United States was in the throes of internal conflict. Still many draft cards to burn, Watts et al. to riot, drugs to ingest, self-immolating Buddhist monks, Dylan and the Beatles coming on strong. Whites were shouting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” And blacks: “Hell no, we won’t stay!” The RPMs of the fan were turned up, but all the shit had not been loosed. I was the cleanest cut American WASP. Fair complexion. Hair clipped close. I’ve always carried on astringent dialogues about authority. Why do what someone else says? Why not do it? Already had penned my John Hancock to a petition supporting the people of North Vietnam, which was easy for me, but had jabbed spearheads into my parents’ hearts. Here I was again in the Deep South, much against their counseling. But I had the residues of that pioneering instinct left over from carving out swaths in the great American wilderness.
TIAL was a thorn in the side of the conservative black community as much as it was to the beer guzzling white one. Their meeting room reminded me of the Our Gang comedy clubhouse. There was no hint of humor among those gathered — eyes sewn on the solitary white polluting their sanctuary. Was it hate? Suspicion? Well, it turns out they needed someone to integrate their group, because Sunday they were going to attempt entry into the all-white Baptist church. A first for Tuskegee. And guess which fair-skinned bystander was on the menu to participate? Did I want to be part of the action? Experience first-hand? Was I to be passenger — or vehicle?
Looking past my image in the mirror, I can see three of them clearly. Tyson Jones — tall, lanky — hot from his suede shoes to his kinky black hair. Articulate as Stokely Carmichael, with enough incisive bitterness to make any fencesitter squirm. Nimrod Divinity Tate — big, black and beautiful. Under slightly different circumstances, he would be a pulling guard for a pro football team. Nothing could hamper his good nature. A devotee of life. (It was he who yanked me into the center of the group: “Hey, brothers, this man is come to join us; let him be welcome.”) And the third, Red Arclinger — blue-eyed, freckly face, tight-curled, but not quite kinky, red hair. “We ain’t goin to stan no mo fo segr’gashun in de day, an int’grashun a’ night.” Quiet Red. Always there, the backbone of any good rebellion.
Definitely I was a fish out of water. The strategy for Sunday’s church integration. Tyson spoke: “Be clean and neat; proper church attire. Everyone. Borrow some if you don’t got your own. Be at Nelson’s by quarter to nine; we’ll walk together from there. A normal casual walk. Double file. When we get to the church, walk up the steps as though we are all planning to attend like good Baptists — just like we always do. Nimrod will lead us, and if the door is closed — which sure as hell it’s gonna be — he’ll deliver his little sermon on all the people of God being one family et cetera. There’s a weevil’s chance in a gin that the doors will actually open. Probably those holy people will have some Bible shit to read us, why we are supposed to pray at the black Baptist church. But we ain’t leavin. The newspapers have been notified. And the city and county sheriff’s office have guaranteed protection. You all know how me and the sheriff get along. No matter what happens we’re going non-violent, even if they come at us. Don’t fight back. Even me. Especially me. You understand that. Don’t resist! Just go down.”
Then he turns to me, and direct as an arrow says, “You gonna be there?” (This, I thought, is what they refer to in books as “the moment of truth.”) My heart was creeping up my esophagus like an inchworm; but my tongue would not unwind. Every pair of eyes is on me like, “Are you just another curious northerner come down here to take photographs? Or are you for real?” I catch Nimrod’s eye; he is not smiling. Cold and hard. “Put it on the line, Scott. Put it on the line. If we go up there all black, they can just write us off again as the same old TIAL troublemakers; we need some white bodies with us. We need you!”
“Like hell!” whips out. “Don’t beg ’im, Nim. We don’ beg no more! If he ain’t wi’ us, he agin us! Screw ’im! Go back north to yer bourgeois Mama, and yer black nannies. Ya ain’t doin nothin down here but placatin yer guilt; but it’s too thick fer ya! Y’all fergit ’bout us quick ’nough; when the night come, we dis’pear; jus lak yer servants after dinner. Y’all work us til we drop; beat us when we do; rape our women; lynch our men. Damn hypocrite! We’re tired of it. Goddamn fuckin tired! We don’ need ya, any of ya, white elitists. Go back to the suburbs and die o’ fright!”
That was Gwen Wells.
She nailed me down with 300 years of hate. I was thick with guilt. The reading of the scroll of sins; no denying the purgatory that white civilization had bequeathed to this generation. I looked over to where she was leering, pointing, judging. Her black hair was tied back with a red handkerchief. Veins leapt from her forehead. God, she was angry! A large scar below her eye which was half red. Long gold-looped earrings. Flared nostrils. A pair of gold teeth in her lower jaw. What a visage! She wore a plaid short-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned, and tied by its corners around her middle. Blue jeans and sneakers. I couldn’t meet her eyes; they were embers.
A half hour passed. Inside the church there was some movement, and occasional murmurings, but I was sure the door was not going to open. As a group we relaxed slightly. The police cruised up and around the streets. At a quarter to ten, a group began to form catty-corner. Drinking beer. Shirts open. These, I now understood, were rednecks. There were about thirty. They were the reflection of Gwen’s hate. She turned and looked at me and whispered, “Get ready.” At 10 o’clock it was hot; hot and tense and heavy like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. Above the wooden statue of Christ, below the steeple, the big hand of the church clock lodged between the 1 and 2 of the 12. Before the thunder unrolled, a flash of lightning. I noticed that the ever-present police cars had vanished. And the mob was coming right for us — wielding golf clubs, baseball bats, pieces of wrought iron and God knows what else. Gwen’s voice: “Here the bastards come!” She had been there before.
“Kill the niggers!”
“Kill ’em! Kill ’em!”
“Break their fuckin skulls!”
“Get the big one!”
They swung their weapons randomly. I can still hear the thuds against the bodies. They swung at all of us, but they were going for the leaders. One guy was about to swing at Gwen, and instinctively I leaped between them (we were supposed to be non-violent?) and took a terrific blow on my right arm. Intense pain shot through it. At the same instant a voice shouted, “Run!”
The guy had turned his spotlight of hatred on me now.
“You fuckin white nigger!”
For half a second I looked into his eyes, as he raised the club again; he was blind with rage, saliva dripping out of his mouth. I didn’t want to feel his anger come through that club again. Halfback reflexes took over. I straight-armed him, side-stepped a couple of other would-be tacklers. We were scattering in every direction now, except those who had already gone down. A young redneck stood in the sidewalk in the direction I was sprinting. He was standing between a building and a parked car, a golf iron raised.
“Get ’im, Jeff!”
But I had had enough civil disobedience for one morning. I ran straight toward him and, at the last possible second, swerved up the trunk of the car, the roof, the hood, and kept on going. He chased me a minute, but I was gone — like a turkey through the straw. As I rounded the second corner I saw two police cars parked side by side, the cops chatting leisurely through the windows. I kept running until I arrived at the clinic on Tuskegee campus. Exhausted, arm burning with pain, I kicked at the door. Finally a nurse came and opened it. I was on the verge of tears; I fell through and passed out.
The following is the sequence of events and thoughts which I have pieced together from the diary I kept that summer (the entries are difficult to read eighteen years later, scrawled left-handed).
I woke on the clinic floor, totally disoriented. My right upper arm looked like I had shoulder pads on — black and blue. The nurse came in and asked me if I wanted some pain pills. No, I said firmly. She helped me into bed, started to leave, and said, “Last night, you was delirious, thrashin ’round, and you was speakin in the thickest Negro accent, jus’ like you was born here. It made me stop and wonder, that’s all.”
My arm was throbbing continuously. But I had to know about the other folks. I said I felt fine, so I could leave. The nurse cut the right sleeve off my shirt.
I walked down to where Nimrod lived, in the black section of Tuskegee. Some very electric stares. It made me proud of the injury. The pain made me not afraid. Nimrod’s sister, who was with us, but uninjured, opened the door, and began to laugh when she saw my balloon arm. “Wait’ll ya see Nimrod.” He came walking out, smile big as ever. Had a bandage on top of his head; when he bent over you could read on it: FREEDOM. He said, “One of them white plumbers tried to ’tach a piece o’ pipe to my skull.”
Tyson was essentially okay; he told me later he had gone berserk and grabbed a baseball bat from one of them and started swinging back. George had a lump on his head and was proud of it (like me). Red ended up in the hospital, the worst of us, with a broken collarbone. Gwen had a beautiful “shiner” and sprained her ankle when someone pushed her over the church steps’ railing. Some bruises, cuts, torn ligaments, one broken finger to a brother named Leroy.
President Jameson called me into his office: (a) my mother had phoned, was frantic with worry, because of the news reports; (b) what was I doing at the white Baptist church; was that part of my tutoring responsibilities? (c) stay away from the TIAL people; they cause more trouble than they do good; (d) remember you are a guest at Tuskegee University; act accordingly.
Some of the rednecks had thrown the television camera out the window. National news coverage: Civil Rights Skirmish In Tuskegee; Another Inch Along The Black Equality Road; More Racial Violence.
Answer me this, Scott Anderson Merrill. What were the cops doing? Was the whole thing planned from the beginning? What are you doing here? Trying to integrate a white Baptist church? You think you can change hundreds of years of slavery by getting your arm clubbed? Who is responsible for all this shit? Will anything be better because you are here? Or would anything be better if you had stayed in Massachusetts?
My heart had gone out of tutoring. Juniors and seniors in high school reading on the sixth grade level. It seemed hopeless. There’s a large statue in the middle of the Tuskegee campus of a downtrodden Negro man, having his eyes “opened” as Booker Taliafero Washington removes the “veil of ignorance” from his face. I was staring at it Tuesday night, depressed, waiting for some flash of enlightenment, or at least a match full of understanding, when Gwen Wells’s voice came out of the twilight: “Do you think he’s taking the veil off or putting it on?” (She would slide in and out of her southern drawl at will and whim.) “Ole Booker said we was gonna be lak de fingers of one hand wid de white race, equal an’ sep’rate. Shit on that, I say; we ain’t even made it to one joint of the little finger.” She saw it all so clearly; all I saw was confusion.
“I figure you must hate me.”
“Oh, man! You are so in your fuckin head; and self-pity on top. White boy, you think it matters if we integrate that church? I wouldn’t be caught dead in there. It’s just a game. Like a tug-o-war — that’s where the line is drawn. Just one big fuckin game. I ain’t hatin nobody. Don’ ya hear de song: I loves ev’rybody in ma heart. That’s how I am. You, me, Tyson, Red, the asshole Sheriff. We’re just actors, you know, passin through. Nothing really changes. It’s a big hurtin, pain in the ass game. And, Lord knows, we play for keeps. We got to play; cause if ya don’ play, ya lose. I’ve been beaten so many times, I’m not sure it’s me less I hurt. Outside of Jackson, when I was fifteen, I snuck up on a Klan meetin, where they was braggin ’bout burnin some niggers’ houses. One of those niggers was my uncle, and two of my cousins burnt to death in that fun time they had. I couldn’t control myself; so from where I was hidin I started screamin and throwin rocks at ’em; then I ran, but they catched me. . . .”
Her eyes were distant; not angry, but very distant. She pulled up her shirt in the back, and there in big letters was branded KKK. God, I thought. Just plain, God. What a bad joke. She turned to me and grabbed my arm. “Only reason I speaks is so that ya wake up. I know who y’all are, white boy. An’ it’s not fer y’all ta suffa; but ya got ta feel it a little.”
She hit my bad arm and a shot of pain soared through it.
“Open your eyes and see what’s happenin.”
I looked over at her and she was smiling, her golden teeth smile. I wasn’t sure if she was laughing at me or just smiling. She was a gold-toothed Mona Lisa.
“Y’all live in dese here dom’tories?”
I nodded toward the far western one.
“You wanna show me yo room?”
Not really. No, Gwen, you can’t come up into my room (it was on the third floor). It’s completely against the rules. President Jameson has already warned me about relationships with TIAL people. Women are not allowed in the men’s dorm. And above all a black woman, in the only white room. My guts began to gurgle.
“You scared, ain’t ya, white boy?”
Why does she call me white boy all the time? Does she want me to carry her luggage? My name is Scott, Gwendolyn.
“Same damn thing. Someone makes the rules, you obey them. Hey, man, you lettin folkses run yer life for ya. D’ya hear me?”
Completely correct. Right on the money. So I opened the outside door and looked in and listened for footsteps, and three-stepped it up the stairwell. I went and opened my door, the second down on the left, and she slipped in like a black cat. She walked around the room a minute.
“You knows what ta do nex’, white boy?”
She had me again. I certainly was a white boy. Back at the statue I knew just what she meant. I could feel myself blush as she toed off her sneakers, and started to undo her jeans. She smiled that same taunting smile. I was stuck and she knew it. But there was no going back.
“Ya wanna hear me yell rape?” She laughed and pushed me on the bed. She was naked except for her red handkerchief. She started bouncing on the bed and singing, “You gotta do what the spirit say do.” I was so nervous that someone was going to hear and have me reported that I grabbed her. Then she started laughing real loud.
“Shut up! Will you?” I shouted in a whisper.
“Come on, white boy, make me. Shut me up.”
I was losing control. My good left arm encircled her waist and I managed to cover her mouth with my right hand. She pushed back against me and we fell on to the floor on my back, and at the same time she bit my hand.
When I awoke the sheets and pillow and blanket were strewn about me on the floor. My arm ached like hell. I was alone, kind of happy, and very bewildered.
September 1 was the first day of pre-season football at Amherst. My arm was 100 per cent better but not completely healed. The coach was pissed as could be. There were seven black students at Amherst my junior year — four from Africa. If I had been any less a jock, I would have been kicked off the team. I tried to tell my teammates about Alabama, but got tongue-tied or teary-eyed or both and gave up. A few days before classes began I received a letter from Tuskegee. I waited until after practice, and walked out into the woods to open it.
Dear White Boy,
Last Friday they caught Nimrod alone out by Henderson’s Service Station. When we finally found him he was full of buckshot. Everyone is taking it hard. Real hard. Thought you’d like to know. Keep your eyes open.
January 7, 1984. I’m walking down Second Avenue in NYC en route to visit my nine-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother. I am thirty-eight now. Where I am is not where I was planning to be. But it’s okay. Lots of color and noise, but it’s not so close as it once was. Like at a railroad crossing where the red lights flash and the mechanical arms descend, and along with many others, I wait as the long line of freight cars move before our eyes. Each car contains reams of silent history. The back pages of the Vietnam story have been penned, and the cover is already gathering dust on the shelf. Alcohol has re-established itself in the American home. Castro lives nearby in the Caribbean, a relatively quiet and good-natured neighbor. National issues are all overshadowed by nuclear holocaust which flaps and flutters like a hawk ready to descend. The intensity of emotion — hope and despair — and the relentless need to act have vanished like the trailing train whistle. But where did it go? What corresponds to the pain in my aching right arm from a redneck’s club? When we or they begin launching nuclear warheads, like kids with balsa wood gliders, will the earth and its inhabitants disappear forever — one, two, three?
On a rare whim I decide to walk down St. Marks to Tompkins Square Park for a glimpse of my old stomping grounds. There’s some sun this morning, fairly clear, but cold. There are no gates on the park, but nevertheless the chainlink fence has been cut and ripped open. I squeeze through one of the jagged tears. In the Ukrainian corner is a concrete chess board — two seated players and a dozen kibitzers. Gray and white pigeon feathers on the leafless bushes. I collect a few and put them behind my ear. Half the boards have been ripped off the benches, even less comfortable for the derelicts to sleep on. An amazing scene, the wrinkled faces, ages, colors and nationalities, in long overcoats, passing a morning bottle. Familiar sound of a ball bouncing draws me to the opposite corner; a couple of black kids are swapping shots at the netless hoop. I move over cautiously. Another shows up with a ghetto blaster; he’s got a Michael Jackson tape blaring away. I look up at the window where I used to live — head full of nostalgia. I wince and start back, remembering my daughter. The proverbial bag woman is peering deep into a trash basket, seeking her fortune. I pass a black lady sitting on a bench. She looks up at me and smiles. I stop dead in my tracks. A pair of gold front teeth. We are staring at each other, and I can see her half-red eye. She has not moved, but is still smiling.
“Well, I declare! Is that you, white boy?”
And I start to laugh. I can’t control myself. Tears of laughter are rolling down my face and I move forward to embrace her as she rises. She looks exactly the same. Perhaps a little more jowl flesh.
“Let me look at you. My Lord! Where you been keepin yo’self?
Gwen is married now and lives in a loft in the Soho district. She has two children, a boy and a girl. Her husband commutes three days a week to New Jersey where he teaches political science at Rutgers. She is still in touch with Opal Tate, Nimrod’s second sister. As we parted she flashed her taunting smile, “White boy, you been keepin yo’ eyes open?” I stared at her — the cheek scar, redness in her eye, the golden teeth, her black face. On Avenue A, a man was leaning out his car window, screaming curses, and relentlessly honking his horn.