The following is a middle chapter from a yet-to-be-written book of the year 1965. The author was a 20 year old kid from, and named, to all concerned, "Arkansas," aka Jim Benston. The location is from the county jail in the tiny town of Linden, Alabama, to the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom House in Selma. The author had been incarcerated, unknown to all but a few, for several weeks, for having organized a demonstration in Demopolis against a city ordinance banning ALL public meetings at any place or time,
Arkansas had been singled out by the police when they attacked the demonstration, and was held in jail for a week until released on bond at ten o'clock on a Saturday night. Free for ten seconds he was re-arrested for "Failure to demonstrate proof of gainful employment," or vagrancy, which, in Alabama, was a felony.
Because of the seriousness of the charge, the author was transported at 2:AM over thirty miles of fields, forests, and swamps, chained to one 300 pound ofay, and a sawed-off ex-marine deputy sheriff named Ernie Lollie. Lollie had spoken that week at a KKK rally of 600 men at Chickasaw State Park naming the author by name, stating that he would kill him. The location is an hour's drive from the dam where, but a few months earlier, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were discovered.
It was an unpleasant drive.
Deputy Lollie kept sticking his gun into Arkansas' ribs & shouting in his face, "You feel that, Boy? You better go fer it! This yo last chance you God-damned nigger-lover. You better go fer it!" Since [Arkansas] was hand-cuffed to both of them it was difficult to come up with a viable plan of escape.
During the weeks Benston sat in the Linden jail, and unbeknownst to him, the Watts rebellion had occurred in Los Angeles and the National Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress. He was also ignorant of the complete takeover of Alabama SNCC by the Black Nationalist faction, complete with new personnel with an "attitude."
Other characters in the story: Jimmy Collier, a young Black folksinger and organizer, also from Arkansas. You may have seen him on Sesame Street. Silas Norman, the former SNCC project director, also Black, from Michigan. Jim Clark, High Sheriff of Selma, Dallas County, who took personal vengeance upon the author as a southern white man, and therefore a double traitor to race and region. Colonel Al Lingo, commandant of the Alabama State Troopers, who ordered and led the massacre of the 700 marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge on March 7. Coop, the Demopolis police chief & Sgt. Johnson, the cop who arrested Arkansas for vagrancy and turned him over to the Sheriff's boys.
Stokely [Carmichael], [James] Forman, Worth [Long], Julian [Bond], [Bernard] Lafayette, John [Lewis], SNCC leaders with whom Arkansas had worked in the field for the previous year. John Lewis is now U.S. Congressman from Atlanta. Rev. Boone, an SCLC minister who resented the author's work in Demopolis for reasons of personal power. Rev. Reese a local Selma Movement minister and political figure.
J.D. Thompson was a local poor white man from Sweetwater, Alabama, who had been in jail for seven months awaiting a preliminary hearing on a trumped-up forgery charge because he was not racist against his black neighbors. Aaron was a 15-year-old black youth in jail for 30 days on a very minor charge, with whom we could communicate through a one inch hole we had cut through the wall. J.D. was a family friend and counselor to Aaron. Mrs Lena Frost, from Demopolis, had first bonded the author out of jail, then witnessed his re-arrest.
SCOPE, the Summer Community Organizing & Political Education Project, was a funded division of SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mandated to motivate, organize, and register to vote thousands of Alabama Black citizens for the first time. It was also charged (unadmittedly) to manipulate the new voters into the National [Alabama Party of "White Supremacy for the Right"} Democratic Party to directly counter SNCC's valiant efforts to build independent political organization: viz. the Black Panther Party of Lowndes County.
The date: August 21, 1965, the author's 21st birthday. Have a Party!
************ Midnight ************
"Benston! Get your shoes!"
"What's going on?"
"Get your damn shoes and shut up!"
I was thinkin 'lynch mob' — or maybe Ernie and his buddies in hoods. Here it was, midnight again — seems like the only time they make moves in Alabama jails. I handed J.D. the cutter, a blade we had devised to cut through the bars, and told him, "Good luck with your hearing. I don't know what they got in store for me. Try to get the word out — anything you see or hear. I'm gonna fight to the last drop. Tell your wife to bake whole wheat bread; it'll do her good. Tell Aaron don't ever come back here."
"Hey, Jim, you never know. Keep your eyes open."
The keys rattle. Door clangs open to the cell block. Only one set of footsteps. Maybe I can jump him and make a break. But Jimmy, the jailer, hasn't really been bad to me considerin'. He's not the enemy. He's just the most exposed corner; and look what the newspapers would do! Breaking out is one thing — but hurting somebody is a whole 'nother ball game. I'll save my chances. Might need 'em later. Like J.D. said, "You never know."
We walk downstairs to the Sheriff's office. There sits Jimmy Collier and some other guy across from the Sheriff.
"Jimmy! Damn! They got you, too? What's happening?"
"Hey, Arkansas — cool it. You're free. I just came to get you out. Rev. Boone had spread the story the cops gave out that you'd been released and went home. Nobody knew what to do. I just got back into town, and they busted me for not 'hitting the sidewalk.' That's how I found out about you."
"Hey. Don't need words now — just steps. God! I'm glad to see you!
You been singin'?"
After about five minutes' paperwork I breathed free air again, but it was guarded by the memory of Coop, or Sgt. Johnson, jumping me when I got released in Demopolis, and Deputy Lollie's public threat to kill me — made right in the state park we passed on the way to Linden. And I'm not in anybody's legal custody now. No one is responsible for my safe arrival anywhere 'cept us three.
"Let's get th' Hell flyin'!"
We did. In the car Jimmy explained about his fundraising trip up East with Rev. Reese, and some problems they'd encountered. He knew I'd been busted and made a special effort to get down to see about it; but days got wasted getting the trip arranged. When he showed up in Demopolis, he learned about the rumor game, and spoke with Mrs. Frost about my vagrancy bust.
"I was rappin' with some kids across from the church, and this cop pulls up — the kids scatter. Cop gets out,"Hit the sidewalk!"
"You're under arrest!"
"Failure to obey an officer of the Law!"
"Welcome back to Alabama," I inserted.
"Well, they booked me for breach of the peace, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer. That's when I heard about you. They were braggin' behind the desk. "Hey, now we got 'em both!" D'ya think we outta send him down there, too?"
"Naw — gotta wait for a State charge — besides, they might get riled up."
"Hey, Jimmy, where're we goin'? This isn't the way to Demopolis."
"Look, Arkansas, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but Demopolis is locked tighter'n a drum. And the sheriff put out a blanket warrant APB on YOU, effective at dawn. You gotta be outta this county by sunrise or you're game."
"What's the charge?"
"There's no charge. It's like a bounty. No details. Just: "Get this man!"
Jim, they gonna use you for target practice and come up with the charges later. Bob here's gotta get back to Montgomery tonight, and I gotta get back to Atlanta. You got any place to stay?"
"Well, there's this lady in Selma; I used to sleep on her couch, Mother Wheeler; but she's pushin' seventy. I couldn't wake her, or anyone else this late. I haven't been in town since April. So I'd better just go to the Freedom House."
"OK, Arkansas, but we can't drive you there 'cause there's been night riders drivin' through and shootin' it up lately. And SNCC's armed and returning fire. A car ain't safe on Lawrence Street, or Philpot"
"That's OK. I'll walk in from Broad Street — I need the air anyway. By the way, what's goin' on with SNCC? I haven't heard from them since spring — couldn't get any messages returned. I hear they're diggin' in in Lowndes and Wilcox Counties, but they're not interested in Marengo, hunh? They seem to think I sold out to SCLC by dealing with SCOPE at all. God! If they only knew!"
"Lotta changes, Man."
"You know, I been tryin' to coordinate with them all along, but I can't get any response. What gives? Are they all suckin' up to Ivanhoe and his goons? I got a taste of their "brotherhood" in Montgomery when they did this, "Honkey" business on me about the security force I had organized for the March. Where's that come from anyway?"
"Yeah, I know, they got some bad brothers with a grudge — Yankees. You know you aren't very safe. Those riders been shootin' into several houses; and folks are around and watchin'. I hear they got one the other night."
"Look, Jimmy, I can take care of myself. It ain't like it's where I just come from. I know the streets."
"Yeah, but good looks and fast feet don't stop no bullet — 'specially with your accent."
"But, they know me."
"People forget — Oh God! Arkansas, I forgot to tell you, Whatever you do, Don't go downtown! And get off the street quick!"
"Not that I was planning to — but, how come?"
"Tonight's the night!"
"Geeze, Man, Haven't you heard about Watts?"
"What's Watts? — Somethin' to light your bulb with?"
"Watts is part of L.A. Niggers rose up an' burned it down last week. Same as always, a cop shot a kid. 'Cept this time folks got fed up and went on the rampage. They called out the Guard; and they was shootin' brothers like crazy. They killed about forty."
"God! It's happ'nin'! Sharpeville all over again. So that's what that was all about! About a week ago they took me down to the hole, and there's a couple of goons who try to use me for a punchin' bag. They kept sayin' something about L.A., and niggers, and "You did it! You dirty nigger-lovin' Commie!!' As I covered myself."
I kept wondering what th' heck it was I had done, and was it good or bad, and, What could it possibly have to do with L.A.?"
"Yeah, even Martin went in and tried to calm things down, and they shot at Him!"
"Oh shit! If we lose Martin, it'll be WAR — Genocide!"
"That's what I'm tryin' to tell you! It's Tonight!"
"They're trying to provoke a panic, an uprising — crackers & niggers — toe to toe — all over the country; and you know which side the Law is on, and the army. Al Lingo, you remember ol' Colonel Al on the Bridge, he put out an edict today sayin' he had discovered secret information: 'The Niggers is risin' tonight — like the Mau Maus.' He's gonna be the hero by quelling the revolt, like they got Denmark Vesey. He ordered every able-bodied lawman in Alabama to patrol tonight fully armed and ready. And you're walking right into Sheriff Jim Clark's territory; and he sure ain't forgot about you! I hear his Water Posse is riding in groups of a dozen, on horseback, and the sheriff, himself, is on top of the courthouse with a machine gun!"
"Geeze! Right outta the frying pan into the blessed, ever-lovin' fire!"
"Hey, Jimmy, is Stokely in town?"
"It sure ain't me."
Boy! Nothin' like getting outta jail on a Saturday night — just in time for the fireworks. Well, we sang a couple Freedom Songs for courage — but they were kinda thin — quashed by the pressure and the fear.
We will never tu-u-rn back
No, we'll ne ver turn ba-a-ack.
Until we've all be-e-en freed
And we have e-qua-li-ty.
They say that Freedom is a constant struggle
they say that Freedom is a constant Struggle
They say that Freedom is a constant Struggle
Oh Lord! we've struggled so long
We must be Free
We MUST be FREE!
Then we said our parting words like, "Hey! Take it easy, brother." "Yeah, You do the same and keep singin' those tunes We need it."
"You gotta learn guitar, Arkansas."
"Sure, lend me yours for a few months."
"Not a chance. I'll die with it."
"When you comin' back through?"
"Might be awhile — Say, Arkansas, you can still come to Atlanta with me."
"Naw, this is my home."
The night was deadly quiet like an explosion that forgot to happen — pregnant like a sputtering fire next to the haystack. I walked the half-mile to the Freedom House studiously nonchalant, half-humming my favorite freedom songs in staccato breaths, but they all kept coming out the same:
This may be the last time
This may be the LAST time
This may be the last time
May be the last time
I don't know
I've never seen Jimmy Collier again, Ol' Buddy. I come to Philpot Street. The lights are out here, but the quarter moon is high. I approach the Freedom House with a bit of trepidation; but it's cold, and I have no place else to go. Up the creaky wooden steps — across the creaky wooden porch — KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. Motion inside. Two rifles and a shotgun stick out of the screen point blank at me.
"Who's there?" a deep, unfamiliar voice barks out.
"Arkansas," I reply. All the guns cock: "Arkansas Who?"
I didn't know these guys, and to my shock, they sure didn't know me.
"Hey you guys, I know I been out of town awhile. But I just got out of jail tonight, and it's cold out here. If I was some damn Klan cracker would I be walkin' up here by myself — unarmed. I'm tired. Where's Stokely?"
"Ain't got no space for no damn honkie. What you know 'bout Stokely?"
"Hell, we worked together in Lowndes County. We met last year in Atlantic City."
"Shuddup! You don't know no damn Stokely! Now git yo ass steppin' 'fore I blow your fuckin' head off!"
"Hey! Ain't no call for that kinds talk. Who's inside that's been here for awhile? Is Lafayette here? How 'bout Worth? Julian? Forman? John? Sorocco? Hell, I'll even talk to Ivanhoe. Wasn't none of you guys on the March?"
"Ain't nobody here but us. An' you 'bout gone!"
I here steps inside and more motion — seems like now there's six or eight of 'em watchin' me. Lotta mumb'lin' I can't make out. Silence. More steps.
"Silas says bring him back to see."
"They march me back in the dark. Freedom fighters asleep on the floor of the hall. I'm terrified one of the guns is gonna go off if somebody trips. They're all pointed at me. We enter the tiny back room. Lantern is lit.
"Hey, Arkansas! Where th' hell you been? We heard they got you. Damn! We thought you was dead, or went back home."
"Hell, Silas, this's the only home I got. And it looks a bit shaky right now."
"I'll say! Put those damn guns down! We got a brother here. Hey, there's been lots of changes since you been here. I've been replaced — we all have. I'm leaving out for Madison in the morning. All these dudes came down from Atlanta and took over in the past few weeks. 'S'alotta heavy stuff goin' on in Lowndes & Wilcox. We shootin' back now. You know they killed Jonathan Daniels today in Haneyville."
"Oh my God! Jonathan? He's about the best Yankee we ever had down here."
"Yep. Blew him apart. Point-blank. Shotgun. Right downtown. Broad daylight. They shot a priest, too, Father Richard Morrisroe. & both of 'em white."
Geeze! What a scene to walk into!"
"You're right, Arkansas. If I wasn't here, they'da probably shot you!"
"You're tellin' me!" "Put out the light, Silas!"
"Hey, look, I got business — see you in the mornin'."
"Is there a place to crash?"
"You gotta find a corner like everybody else. G'night."
Silas Norman was the soft-spoken SNCC Alabama Project Director when I was last in town. He had the tiny back room with the heater, the bed, and the girl. I learned years later that his sister is Jesse Norman, the world-famous opera singer. I went out to the kitchen where one guy was heating coffee, and several more were asleep on the floor. Nobody's talkin'.
I ask, "'S there a place to crash?"
"Hey, Man — you got eyes!"
I go out into the hall where the floor is pretty full of sleeping bodies, and three guards are peering out the door.
"Hey! Ain't got no spot for no damn honkie!"
"Look, I don't even know what a honkie is, but you got no call to talk to me like that. I'm cold and drained."
"I got no WHAT! Look here, you ..."
Click — "Come in here, Arkansas."
The door to the big living room opened, and standing there in a shimmering blue-white nightgown was a beautiful young lady beckoning me into the room.
The dude at the door with the gun jumped up yelling at her, "Hey! You ain't gonna let ...!"
"Yes I AM," she answered softly, pulling me inside. She locked the door. I was stunned, intrigued, terrified, perplexed, and mighty pleased.
The master bedroom was big with a couple chairs — some gear, a piece of a rug, a big, springy bed, and, of course, the fireplace, where a few embers glimmered. The Lady's name was Terri. She said it would be too attractive to the others for us to build a big fire, but we could put on a few sticks for me to warm up.
We talked for awhile. Terri was twenty-two, from Cincinnati, and a sociology student. She'd been here for six weeks doing voter registration with LCFO, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. which had really picked up since the Voting Rights Act passed Congress two weeks ago.
"Yes, now we've got the right to vote. And they can't stop anyone from going down to register. They've got federal marshals down there. And they have to protect everyone who comes in. All the tests have been thrown out. All you need is your name, age and residency. Even you could vote, Arkansas! You are twenty-one aren't you?"
"Man, what a night for you!"
"I'll say! Wow! How long has this been?"
"Ever since Watts."
"Wow! Watts! yeah, I heard about that tonight, too."
"Oh, that's been weeks, now. Where you been?"
"I been locked up."
"Oh, poor baybe. You're so cold. You better come to bed."
I remember Terri Johnson — the beautiful bronze-skinned woman who had commandeered the big room with the fireplace, and ordered all the others OUT in no uncertain terms. She heard the commotion, unlocked the door, invited me in, then locked the door behind me. I felt guilty being in such a big, warm room while the other dozen or so workers were cramped into cubbyholes. She said they had assumed they had a right to her, so she had to teach them a lesson. We spoke by the fire for maybe 20 minutes. Then Terri invited me to bed. I was a bit afraid under the circumstances — ALL of them. But, this was one strong woman. She let me know that her energy extended beyond the room, and no one would disturb us.
I asked her, "Why me?"
She said. "I want a man who is REAL — not one who just tries to act like it all the time. I want a man who cares about what he does in the world, and not just what he can personally GET out of it. I want a man who can love a woman, not one who just uses her."
"You are very pretty & I appreciate your saving my ass tonight. I like you very much, and I'm happy to be here. But I don't know you well enough yet to love you."
"No other man has been in my bed. I'm going back North tomorrow. You can love me tonight."
Copyright © Strider 'Arkansas' Benston. 2015
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories above belong to the teller. Webspinner: email@example.com