With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When a gust of wind touched down in the fields and swept across the open road, my car shuddered and the steering wheel jerked back and forth under my hands. The minister in the car in front of me turned on his headlights, so I turned mine on too. The cars behind me followed suit, fifteen cars with their headlights on at ten o’clock in the morning. Beside the road, the winter wheat swayed and twisted, whole sections flattening out and rising again as the wind passed on.
Headed in the other direction, a rusty pickup truck stopped by the side of the road; the gray-haired man at the wheel took off his farmer’s cap and waited respectfully for us to pass by.
He thinks we’re a funeral procession, I thought, amused at the idea. I wonder who he thinks I am? Some well-intentioned woman bidding her faithful handyman a final goodbye?
Mine was the only white face. All the other cars were filled with black faces, three or four to a car. Everyone was driving old Chevys or Fords, except Reverend Carter, who drove a small white Toyota.
Oddly, part of his speech back at the church had veered off into consumer advice. First, he had exhorted us not to be afraid, said God was on our side, that He knew we would be victorious, but He was just testing us one more time.
Reverend Career was a large man. When he leaned against the podium, it tilted forward as his stomach pressed against it. He held on with both hands, rocking the podium back and forth with his words.
“Deny them. Deny them what they want. Never let them fool you into thinking you need something you don’t.” He moved to the side of the lectern to show us his suit, putting his hand under his belt, running it back and forth over his belly. “This suit, you see this suit?”
Yes sir, said the audience. All right.
“I bought this suit at a discount.”
The audience murmured its approval.
“Do you know how much I paid for it? Thirty-two dollars, thirty-two dollars for the pants and thirty-two dollars for the jacket. Don’t be fooled — I tell you, they’re killing us. I used to have a Cadillac, now I drive a cheap little foreign car. Don’t let that credit card mistake get to you. Cut them up, throw them away.”
Reverend Carter had gone on to describe other changes he had made, mostly to do with purchasing habits that had let “the Man” have too much control over his life.
Reverend Carter’s wife had greeted me warmly enough when I arrived at the church that morning. We exchanged names, then she introduced me to the others. But when her husband came over to say hello, and I asked him how I could help, he just smiled and said, “Open your checkbook and write a big fat check.” It was a joke, and I laughed too, but then he had moved away from me.
I turned on my radio, wishing I hadn’t pulled in line quite so eagerly and that I was farther back in the column of cars. When we drove by Shorty’s Fruit Stand, weekenders were stashing flats of marigolds and petunias in the backs of their station wagons. Two cars — a white Mercedes and a low red sports car — broke into our line, accidentally joining our caravan and looking strangely out of place. At an intersection in Marshall, a truck pulled in front of another of our cars, breaking up our group even further. Reverend Carter pulled over just past the railroad tracks, and we stopped to let the outsiders pass us.
I turned off my radio. I didn’t want to hear some man with a gravelly voice analyzing the Middle East crisis. Mozart didn’t seem to fit either. Back at the church we had sung an a cappella version of “Victory Is Ours.” I just hummed along in the beginning, not knowing the words, but by the third or fourth time through, standing in a circle holding hands, I caught on. The words were easy. Victory is ours , victory is ours, victory is ours today. I told Satan, get thee behind, victory is ours today.
The purest voice had belonged to an old woman, not much more than five feet tall, with a widow’s hump on her back. She was standing next to her grandchild, whose immature soprano wove uncertainly in and out of her grandmother’s deep contralto. When a man from the NAACP stood up and spoke, he said it was a crime that “this old sister” had to be out today, that she still had to protect herself and her children’s children from what she had suffered.
I am not a religious person. I’ve never been able to say the Apostles’ Creed at St. Paul’s without feeling like a hypocrite. But when that small group asked for Jesus’ blessing, I prayed unconditionally, believing every word I said. Holding hands in a circle, for the first time I was scared instead of just angry.
When we had finally stopped praying and headed out to the muddy parking lot, I asked if anyone wanted a ride, but no one accepted. Now I was not just the only white person in the line of cars, but also the only person traveling alone. Reverend Carter had told the men to make sure the women were safe and that their car doors were locked.
When we got across the county to Churchill, three highway-patrol cars were parked in the bank parking lot. Five state troopers leaned against the cars, their arms folded across their chests, watching us file by. The gas station on the other corner looked deserted, but as we got closer I could see a half-dozen young white men in jeans and camouflage coats standing around the STP cans inside the front window.
We pulled up about a half -block from the intersection, parking in front of a house with a sign on the front lawn. It said “Accounting, Tax Preparation,” and listed a phone number underneath. The house next door had a sign too: “Goose Plucking and Cleaning.” A middle-aged white woman leaned out her front door and yelled at me, “Get your friends to move their cars. They’ve parked in front of the fire plug.” She was shielding her self with the storm door; only her head was clearly visible.
The black women emerging from the car in front of mine seemed uncertain whether to take this as a challenge or as a legitimate request.
“I’ll pull my car back a little. There should be enough room,” I said.
The woman stood in the doorway, watching us. I wondered how long it would take before word got around town that there was a white woman traveling with those colored people.
In their letter to the weekly newspaper, the Klan hadn’t said what time they planned to arrive, just that on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination they would be in Churchill passing out literature and demonstrating. When I called around town to find out what people were planning to do about it, the consensus in the white community was that we should ignore them.
“They’re just looking for publicity,” one said. “If we ignore them they’ll go away.”
Another friend had called the Methodist and Catholic churches to see if either one was willing to sponsor a prayer meeting. Both declined. She said she would join me except she was afraid for her children. Her husband works on tugboats, and she is alone with them for weeks at a time. She didn’t trust the bus driver to handle any harassment they might encounter on the way home from school if word got out that their crazy mother was out there demonstrating with niggers.
She gave me the number of an African-American schoolteacher she had heard was active in the local NAACP. When I dialed the number I got an older woman, perhaps a mother, or grandmother, whose high-pitched denials were saddening. I explained I was calling about the Ku Klux Klan rally the next day and wondered if the NAACP was organizing against it. She said, “No ma’am, I don’t know nothing about it. I’m not a member of that group. I don’t even know who heads it up. No ma’am, I got nothing to do with any groups like that.” My efforts to explain I was against the Klan only deepened her concern. “Nobody here knows anything about that kind of thing,” she said. “We mind our own business. No ma’am, I can’t help you.” And she hung up.
I finally looked in the Yellow Pages and started calling black churches in the outlying county. Sure enough, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organizing a prayer meeting for April 4. I didn’t say I was white, but I expect the person on the other end of the line could tell. Now I was standing on the corner of my hometown with two dozen black people, all of us singing, Jesus prays for me, Jesus prays for me, my mother prays for me, my brother prays for me.
Two TV crews came out from Baltimore. The young woman who interviewed Reverend Carter had silky blond hair that lifted away from her face when the breeze blew. She had on bright red lipstick and wore three-inch-high heels. I didn’t hear what she asked him, but I heard him reply, “We are here to witness our faith. We are here to witness that the dream will not die.”
She didn’t see the yellow school bus pull up behind her. We could see the white pointed hoods of the men inside, and we sang louder, holding hands and swaying from side to side. Behind me, a black woman, maybe six feet tall, started a call-and-response gospel, singing out the words to each line before we answered her. We raised our hands to the sky as we sang; I suppose it looked good on TV.
As the men got out of the bus, they unfurled their flags of Dixie, adjusted the belts around their white robes, and walked toward us. The old woman with the contralto voice picked up her grandchild and hugged her close.
“See?” she said. “See what they look like? That’s the Klan.” The child hid her face in her grandmother’s neck. “Don’t be afraid of them,” the grandmother said. “Don’t they look stupid in their bathrobes in the middle of the day?” Her granddaughter didn’t look up. “That’s the Klan,” the old woman said again, her face settling into a grim imitation of a smile.
As they drew nearer and started across the street, state troopers moved into position between us. “Niggers go home,” the Klan yelled. “King was a communist.” Their white masks had holes cut out for eyes and nose. “White power forever,” they shouted. On our side of the street, the singing faltered,then started again. Victory is ours, victory is ours, we sang, holding hands.
An overweight young man with long blond hair stepped into the street, his face half-covered with a camouflage-print bandana. He shook his fist and yelled, “Die, nigger, die,” as he moved toward us.
Our town is very small. Churchill has one stoplight, one gas station, and a general store. Our fire department is all-volunteer, and you can still sign an index card to buy groceries on credit at the general store.
I didn’t move here until two years ago. Most of my life I have lived in what Eastern Shore people call “the North,” which means anywhere people “don’t understand how things are done around here,” as far as I can tell. But because my mother grew up in Churchill, we spent our summers here, first with my grandmother, then with my aunt after my grandmother died. I can remember asking, before I was old enough to know better, why the woman who came to clean my grandmother’s house was called a colored woman, when we were colored too, just a different color. I don’t remember the answer.
I do remember watching “American Bandstand” on TV one winter afternoon in the 1950s. Some black teenagers were dancing in a group slightly apart from the white kids. My mother stopped in the doorway and said, “Look at those coons dance.” My sister and I, open-mouthed and silent, stared at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I never should have said that.” She turned to leave the room. “You have to realize I was brought up in a different time and place.’’
Although I told my friends about her remark often enough, within the family we never spoke about that day again.
So it’s not that I hadn’t seen racism before I moved to Churchill. Like the time, as a teenager, I went shopping in Bloomingdale’s with a black friend. Within minutes of our arrival, a short, overweight man came and stood about twenty feet away from us. He kept his hands in his pockets, watching as our hands moved hangers of blouses from one side of the clothes rack to another.
My friend explained he was the house detective. “They always target black teenagers,” she said.
I refused to believe her, of course. My mother’s efforts to hide her own racism had succeeded often enough to convince me, at that stage of my life, that racism was over somehow. Or that nice people in the community would never show it, especially grownups of good standing. So I conducted an experiment. I walked away from her to another section of the store. Although he watched me as I moved away, as if he wanted to keep a close eye on both of us, he continued to follow every move Carol made. He stayed with her all the way to the front door of the store. He didn’t smile, just stood by the window and watched us leave. I was angry, but Carol didn’t seem to be. She twirled around and stuck her tongue out at him.
When I had small children of my own, I worked with a group of six-year-olds at a day camp. At the store where we went to buy ice-cream cones every Thursday afternoon, there was a warm, loveable man who adored children. The minute we walked in he would spread his arms wide in back of the ice-cream freezer and say, “So, what do the little people want today? Broccoli? Carrots? Maybe a few brussels sprouts?” The children scrambled up on the tall stools in front of the counter yelling a chorus of “Nooooo, noooooo, ice cream, ice cream!”
One by one he sorted out their requests, leaning forward to catch their instructions. He kept them giggly and eager, calling out their orders while he worked, until, with a flourish, he put a napkin-wrapped cone in each hand.
Except Sharlyn’s. She called out her order with the rest, getting more shrill each time her cone did not arrive. She was always the last to get hers, no matter where she was sitting on the twirling silver stools. Mr. Whitney never gave her cone to her himself; he always gave it to me. We went into his store every Thursday for eight weeks, and he never once gave Sharlyn her cone until all the other children had theirs, and he never once handed it to her himself.
Some people said I was exaggerating such experiences. It wasn’t until I moved back to Churchill that I encountered the kind of racism no one could deny.
Soon after I moved here, my daughter Sally got married. Her college friends came to town a few days early to help with the last-minute details. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but one of her friends is from Sri Lanka, another is African-American. They spent days hunting down recipes, picking up folding tables, deciding how much beer we needed. They broke up in groups of two or three, dividing their time between peeling and slicing carrots at home and running off on one more errand.
The party was a huge success. But three days later I got a phone call at one o’clock in the morning. I was alone in the house. When I picked up the phone a woman’s voice said, “Your daughter is a nigger lover.” Then she hung up.
I was left holding the receiver in my hand, still half-asleep, too astonished to make a reply.
A group of thirty or forty white people had gathered in front of the old wooden firehouse and was watching by the time the angry young man with the bandana started across the street toward us. The townspeople milled around, talking in low voices to each other, curious, not part of the action. The old woman who had been holding up her grandchild to see the Klan put her down and stood in front of her. The girl held a handful of her grandmother’s skirt, pressing her face into the brown cloth. The state police linked arms across the road in front of the advancing Klansman. An imposing trooper who walked like a Marine touched the brim of his hat, hitched up his pants, then put both his hands on the young man’s elbow. His body remained taut as he bent over to speak to him. I was singing and the Klan was shouting too loudly for me to hear what he said, but the Klansman retreated to his side of the street and continued yelling from there.
So we settled into our camps: the white onlookers standing in front of the firehouse, nudging each other and talking in low voices; the dozen or so hooded Klansmen on the corner, yelling insults across the street; and the African-American group, swelled now to about fifty people, swaying and singing. The state police stood firmly between us in the middle of the intersection; occasionally a car drove by.
At one point I thought a young white man had joined our group, but I couldn’t find him there next time I looked. Maybe he was a reporter.
Reverend Carter crossed the road to the gas station, and the whites in front of the firehouse bumped against one another a little faster than before, like baby chicks growing too fast in a hatching pen. They were afraid, I suppose; he might have been coming over to speak to them. But all he did was to put his arm around a young black man who had been standing there watching us. The two of them talked; then, looking behind him only once, the young man crossed the street to join our group.
The TV crews milled around. We sang our songs. The Klan yelled, sometimes at me. “Nigger lover,” they screamed. “White power for us,” they chanted, pointing at their own chests. They waved the Confederate flag over their heads. Some tried to stuff flyers in open windows of passing cars, but the police made them stop.
Most of the cars had their windows rolled up; some people drove by waving Confederate flags and cheering on the Klan. A carful of young men gunned their motor as they drove by, one of them baring his ass out the window as they went through the light. After a moment of silence, the grandmother next to me said, “Poor thing, he must not be getting enough.” And we laughed.
Some whites gave us the thumbs-up sign as they drove by, but no one came and stood with us. Two cars drove by twice, their occupants staring at us carefully, driving slowly, examining each face in turn, memorizing faces perhaps.
I saw the neighbor who had advised me that the Klan would go away sooner if we ignored them. She was shaking her head from side to side. Later she told me it was disgraceful how all those outside agitators were picking on our town. She remained convinced that the people I was protesting with had been shipped in from “Baltimore or Washington or wherever they live.”
We never saw the faces of most of the Klansmen, so I don’t know whether they were from around here or not. Their spokesman took off his bandana briefly to speak on camera, but he didn’t look familiar — just an overweight, rough-dressed young man with scraggly hair and acne scars. Could have been anyone, the women around me said.
I can’t tell how long the confrontation lasted, either. I know I was chilled and hoarse from the singing. Even though it was April, the wetness on the pavement smelled of winter. Then, as inexplicably as spring arrives and winter departs, the Klan decided to leave. One minute they were chanting insults, the next they had turned to go.
We broke into “God Bless America,” singing land that I love as they walked away. Reverend Carter led us once more in prayer, thanking God for being with us that day. We were still holding hands when the Klan’s yellow school bus accelerated past, black smoke billowing out of the exhaust. Their chants of Nigger go home drowned out the reverend’s final words. We closed by singing, Glory, glory, hallelujah, the truth is marching on. Then Reverend Carter warned the men to escort the women to their cars.
“Make sure your car doors are locked,” he said. “Let’s leave together now, all in one big group.”
As we turned to go, the woman next to me put her hand on my arm and asked my name.
“We should keep in touch,” she said.
I agreed; her hand was warm on my arm.
“Let me give you my phone number,” she said, “so you can call me if you need me.” But we didn’t have any paper or a pen. “Just a minute,” she said, and went over to the tall, stiff policeman. I watched as he slipped a pen out of his starched front pocket and gave it to her. “I want that back now,” he said, dead serious.
“Hold out your hand,” she told me, and taking my hand in hers, she wrote her name and telephone number in big, black letters on my palm. It tickled a little as the ballpoint pen ran over my skin. Then I held her hand and wrote my name and number for her. Almost simultaneously, we said again, “Call me if you need me,” then laughed, as our thoughts overlapped.
The Klan, she told me later, moved on to Mill Run that afternoon. They met no resistance and stayed until dark.
This story is based on events which actually occurred last year.
Charlotte D. Staelin