In 1961, I was nearing 12 years old as fast as a boy could, in order to get to manhood. My Quaker father wanted to teach me about history and first-hand Civil Rights, so he took me with him to Alabama and Georgia to register Blacks to vote, which was at the time, against the law. We were on one of the Freedom Buses that was fire-bombed. I had already seen a lynched body. I went with my dad to shanties to register people. I waited outside a jail cell while my father was arrested, inside, and I could hear him getting beaten. It was a lesson we re-learned several times, over approximately a four-year summer.
Apparently, no matter how many times “sense” was beaten into both of us, we never learned anything. We kept going “back for more.” My dad once said, “either we are all equal or else the Bible and God’s word is meaningless.” Quakers will literary turn their back against injustice.
(May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, near Anniston, Alabama)
My father is cigarette smoke, lingering.
“Tell them how life is an ashtray someone forgot to clean.”
But I don’t want to. This disappoints him. He is close
as a beating. “Write about the distance of a bus to freedom.”
I can’t. The night is a bully club and for hiding in bushes.
I hear the smacking of flesh. His body is smoking
from hard lessons they taught him about love. This is
for his own good, they stress, another thud. Stay
with your own kind, they advise, crunch. I can hear it now
and then, obvious as a chair. His eyes are lit cigarette tips.
“Where is the body going?” It is a bus ride to register voters.
They surrounded and torched it while we were inside.
I was maybe twelve. My mind is smoky. We were wrong,
shouted the anger, our bodies flames of wings
as we tried to escape and we were taught to behave.
I never misbehaved after. Knuckles still broke, he grouses
even in death. I waited outside the jail, and they’d find me,
beat the bushes like flushing out quail, ground me like ash.
I can’t write this. I did nothing special. “Tell my story.”
Our bus passed the blackened burnt body of a hung man.
Everything goes into smoke, like an old movie reel, burning
in the center big enough to drive a bus through.
You asked for it, dad, witness is a burning like no other.
(Appeared in: Neovox)
Martin Willitts Jr is a Quaker and organic gardener. He has been in two issues of About Place. He has 5 full-length and 20 chapbooks of poetry including national award winning collection of ecology poems, “Searching for What Is Not There” (Hiraeth Press, 2013).