Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Another Letter to Willie

Willie Lee Carter

Dear Willie,

We went over to John and Beth's tonight, because today - November 4, 2008 - was the end of almost two years' campaigning, and the culmination of it all. There had been a huge push to register new voters all over the country and all forms of media declared what an Historic Event this Election Day was going to be.

This was nothing like the voter registration drive I went to observe in Indianola, Mississippi that Spring Break of 1963; I was going to say "Remember?" but you wouldn't, because we hadn't met yet, you and I. But I remember I told you about it.

I had signed up to go to Macalester's "sister city", Indianola, during Spring Break. There was a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board outside Chaplain Al Currier's office, asking for people to go down and take some money we'd collected and some school supplies, because their Freedom School had been burned out. I wanted to know if what I was reading in the press was exaggerated ("Holy cow, it cant' really be like that , it's 1963") or underplayed ("Holy cow, do you suppose it's really worse than that?") or if we were maybe getting the facts.

This was the Schwerner-Goodman-Cheney period, remember. Well, as I told you, no one else signed up. But I thought I'd go anyway, because *I* could take the stuff as well as anyone else, and then I could see for myself. Also, I was curious, naive, not very bright and above all, naive.

I took the bus - Greyhound most of the way, Continental Trailways the rest of the way. My best-laid plans to be travelling in the South only during daylight fell apart when the layover in Memphis was something like three hours, and it was dark by the time we got to Mississippi. The bus went to Greenwood, and I was supposed to call "Larry", a white Civil Rights worker in Indianola, when I got in; then he'd come and pick me up.

When I got off the bus in Greenwood I started into the brightly-lit depot...only to be grabbed by the arm by my seatmate, saying "Y'all don't want to go in THERE!" as she pointed to the sign over the door: "Colored". (Well, matter of fact, I did - but you know, no. And the OTHER depot looked much fancier anyway.)

Long story short, as they say: I was afraid, so I found a cab and asked to be taken to a hotel; in the lobby I took a room and the porter came to carry my bag up to my room. He was black...and only had one arm. He followed me up to the room and when I opened the door, set the bag inside and trotted away. I should've tipped him - but I was nervous and didn't know how you did that.

I called Larry, who asked where I was and what room and said they'd be by to get me. I hung up and was crying (did I mention I was afraid?) and when I went into the bif to wash my face I didn't see the little step up, so I fell and hit my head on the sink and it hurt.

Man, Willie, I'd forgotten a lot of this, although I bet you haven't because you always did have a better memory than mine. Anyway - when Larry got there he called my room and I said I'd be right down. The porter came up to get my bag again....only this time he walked WITH me, and said he hoped I'd enjoy my stay in Mississippi. When the elevator opened there was a thin guy in overalls, and I all but fell into his arms, I was so glad to see him. Remember when I told you that, and you said "How'd you know it was this Larry guy and not the KKK?" Oh, man, Willie. Powerful glad I HADN'T thought of that. Like I said, naive.

There was the very tense ride to Indianola, where I sat in the front seat between Larry, who was driving, and his friend (name forgotten) -- he was black. Didn't occur to me as anything odd, until Larry pointed out that there was a car behind us keeping the same distance whether we sped up or slowed down.........but nothing came of that. "Teenagers", Larry said, "they like to try to scare folks." Yeah well, it worked on me, I can tell you.

I was there for three days, which included a trip to the police station with Larry and two little girls, about 9 and 13, to report that they'd been threatened by some white guys with rifles sitting on their front porch as they (the girls) had walked past them en route to school. The police chief asked me how to spell my name ("uhh...D A L E") and then asked what the ni****s where doing there.

That was when I learned the Secret of the Civil Rights Workers: wrath cancels out fear. You don't use that term, ( where I come from ) and CERTAINLY not in front of children. Nothing ever came of it, but Larry and the other white workers were trying to educate the black citizens of Indianola that they DID have rights, and they should exercise them.

The other two days I was there, we went around and talked to people about registering to vote. We had to point out that ... the fact that the black folks had to recite the State Constitution before they could register (!) ... wasn't legal and couldn't be demanded. (I ask you, Willie, could you have recited the Alabama Constitution? I didn't think so, and NO, Silly, you knew I couldn't do Minnesota's, either, so there!)

There was the girl who told us that her husband was in jail for singing "We shall overcome" in the hearing of some white folks, and that the cops had come to ask her to sign a paper so they could release the prison. When she refused, they made threatening comments about her baby, but left - only to come back later with a BLANK piece of paper for her to sign. She refused and had called Larry to get the name of a lawyer for her husband.

I told you I didn't know if I'd have been able to do that, refuse after they threatened my baby, and you said "Oh, sure you could, believe me." I'm not so sure about that, but then - I didn't live in Mississippi and I wasn't black, and at that point I didn't even have a baby.

There was the night Will Henry and Lynnie and I walked from their house (where I was staying) to a store to buy beer for a little gathering that night...and as we walked back Will Henry swung his arm across my and Lynnie's backs, sending us sprawling face-down in the dirt road -- as some shotgun shells whizzed past and hit the dirt a few feet in front of us. He'd dropped too, and when the car the shots came from sped past we got up and when I asked Will Henry how he knew there were kids and shotguns in that car (because he did NOT ever even look over his shoulder) he said he just knew; the car wasn't going "the right speed". And you nodded when I told you that and said "Yeah, you just get to know stuff like that."

And the night before I left (because most of the white Workers and a lot of the black citizens were leaving for a big rally in D.C. and I really did NOT want to stay down there pretty much by myself, I didn't have THAT much confidence in my wrath), Will Henry tapped on the bedroom door (he'd given up his room for me while I was there) and when I said "Yeah?" he said "Hey, y'all wanna see the KKK?"

Well hell NO! but... you know, I said "sure...." We went into the kitchen, with all the lights out, and across the back field from the house they were marching along, two by two, with a burning cross thing at the front. And he said "They ain't gonna do nothing fitted up like that, because they know there's them FBI around. They're only dangerous when they dressed like regular folks."

The police cars there were the whitest cars I ever saw, and the Workers told me they had, next to their police radios in the cars, radios belonging to the White Citizens' Council. And when the people called the fire department to report the fire in the Freedom School - they came out and pissed on the fire to put it out. The school was, of course, a total loss.

Well, my dear Willie - THIS year, I bet those people registered. And I bet they voted (without reciting the State Constitution). And I am here to tell you - that Mississippi went for McCain, and so did some other states (because he did have some things to his credit and was even a Viet Nam vet like yourself, and he did time in a prison camp and stuff), but more people all over the country registered to vote, and more new voters registered, and more people actually got out and WENT to the polls, than probably ever ever before; the statistics aren't out yet, but they will be,) and I bet you'll be able to see them from there, too.

And Willie? Barak Obama won! He's going to be the next President. He's the President-Elect of the United States of America. We're going to have a black President. And a black First Lady (instead of all the black ladies in the White House serving food....which may not be fair, but I bet there's some truth to it).

Check out that picture at the top, I took it right off of the teevee (we have these digital cameras now, they're very cool).

I bet you can see the future up there, huh? Well, don't tell me, because I'd rather be surprised, and maybe we'll be together by then and can watch it on the teevee up there - but maybe our grandson, Domanic, will be in the White House one day. He could, you know. I mean, we always used to say that, but now? Well, the precedent has been set. And probably even HE won't believe me when I tell him what a big deal history thing this election has been.

Let me tell you one last thing -- and also, thanks for slogging through this. I remember you used to grin and shake your head when I started in one "one o' your tales", you'd say. I seem to still be at it. Anyway, this guy came to the door earlier to ask me to get out and vote (and for Obama, please); when I told him I already had, a couple weeks ago, he gave me a big yellow "I VOTED" sticker and told me this thing he'd heard. When I shut the door behind him, I cried - but you knew I would, didn't you? It goes like this:

"Rosa sat - so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run.

Obama ran so our children can fly."

Your Wordy Widow
PS I still want some of your barbecue when I get there. Our daughter's barbecued ribs are fabulous.....but yours are still better.


Marty52 said...

Beautiful. However, I do hope it's quite awhile before you get to taste Willie's barbecue again. It's a good day to be an American!

Alwen said...

There you go making me bawl again.

This is the country I grew up thinking I was living in. (I didn't recognize the one that came up like a chilly fog over the last couple of terms.)

Kitty Mommy said...

For a bit, I was thinking that it was too bad that my kids aren't big enough to realize just how historic this moment is, but I realized what a gift it is for them to be able to grow up seeing a black man in the white house as a given. There will be time when they are older to understand how amazing that we elected a man that couldn't have participated in an election not that long ago.

Theresa I said...

Dale Harriet you made me cry right here at my desk at work. Now I'm going to forward the link to your post to some friends so they can cry at work too.

Anonymous said...

I am so happy to be crying tears of joy this election instead of the ones I was last time!

What a beautiful post!

I am happy for Willie, and for us all!

Yarnhog said...

I thought about Willie last night, when (at 8:00--the very minute the polls closed here), CNN flashed on the screen "Barack Obama Elected President." Your first letter to Willie stuck with me so tightly, I've thought about him, and you, and your children, more times than I can count during the past several months. I hope he knows. I hope your children understand. I hope your grandchildren don't believe that it was ever such a big deal.

Lee said...

It seems like there is a whole lotta happy cryin' goin' on...

Thank you, Dale-Harriet. That was beautiful. Yes, there were tears in my eyes when the news flashed on the screen last night. But it wasn't until I read this that the dam broke. Your first letter to Willie was so wonderful, I kept thinking back on it throughout the campaign. I specifically clicked here to see if you had something new to say to him - and to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

P.S. If you haven't written down your Civil Rights experiences beyond this blog, please do so. Get them into an oral history archive or somesuch. Our children and grandchildren need to know all that it took to get us to this day.

P.P.S. Looking forward to your next letter to Willie on January 20.

Chanter said...

You just made me cry, Dale-Harriett. Holy cow. *hugs you a bunch*

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. And such happy news.

Chanter said...

Pardon my typos in the last comment. Screenreaders don't always read things clearly; my blunder of your name wasn't intentional, I swear. *sheepish*

Anne Boleyn said...

Oh, D-H! I need to go back and read your first letter to Willie, but for now, this one is such a gift and such a celebration of the new day we have been given. I'm going to buy a new American flag today and I'm going to fly it. For the past few years I haven't had the heart to fly the flag because it had become, to me at least, a symbol of approval for the war and a lot of other stuff that didn't seem right to me.
God bless the world; we sure don't have locks on His blessing!

sarahmeowmeow said...

Thank you, Dale-Harriet. You made me cry (again). I'm sure wherever Willie is, he's smilin':-). Now, I'm off to explain to my kids (ages 6 and 4) why this election is so momentous. I tried to explain racism to my son (6) on MLK Day, and he couldn't understand why people would treat anyone different just because of the color of their skin. May all future generations be that colorblind.

Cindy G said...

Thank you Dale-Harriet.

Hyacinth said...

The first post I read when I wandered over to your blog was your first letter to Willie...and I had tears streaming down my face by the time I finished reading it. Same thing happened when I read this new post...absolutely beautiful!

I'm so delighted that we have elected an educated, smart, eloquent, rational president...who just happens to be black. What a great day to be an American and how wonderful to be able to fly past our terrible racial legacy.

MadZaboo said...

Great post! It made me realize so much more how historic yesterday's election was and how far the country has come. Thanks for sharing with us all.

Linda L. said...

I just read your post out loud to my Dear Jay and we were both sniffling by the end. Thank you for another eloquent personal insight into the civil rights struggle. What history you lived through! I feel honored and humbled to know you.

I remember being that young and naive too, and yet disillusioned and pessimistic; worrying that it would take decades for the racist generations to die, and the children they raised to be racist to die, before our nation could get to the point where someone other than a white man could become President. I didn't believe that Americans could have the courage to break the cycle. Well, my faith has been restored. Way to go, USA. Let's go fly!

jan said...

Thank you, for your wonderful letters - and for going to Mississippi.

slr said...

I have been working very hard on this comment. I am attempting to write this well in honor of your letter to Willie. This post just made me weep those kind of tears that are barely seen on the face but are deep from the soul, the kind of tears that are almost too deep to cry.

In my very humble opinion, I would love to see you write a book of these letters. I agree with lee that you need to put these stories of the Civil Rights Era (why is this only an era?) down on paper/on the "innernets," if only for the sake of your children. I just KNEW you would have something wonderful to say about the election. I thought it amazing that you talked about how scared you were going to Mississippi, and yet you married a black man and had children with him. To me, that screams volumes about your heart and I can only hope to be so brave.

I know from reading your blog that you really want to write children's stories, but I would love to see a series of "Letters to Willie" published. It is my opinion that you could find an audience for your stories in the current climate of change that seems to be sweeping the country.

quirkygranolagirl said...

What a beautiful letter. It made me cry almost as much as I did during Barack Obama's beautiful speech on Tuesday night. Thank you for sharing your story.

janna said...

Oh, Dale-Harriet -- I agree with poster who suggested you should write a series of Dear Willie letters -- a book of them, even!