Poems by Fatima Cortez-Todd


FREEDOM SUMMER 1964 Louisiana

I cashed my CORE paycheck and
After paying my $5 a week room rent
I bought a Bob Dylan album at Kmart for $3.57
And Oretha listen with me for her first time
After she got past his voice, she said,
"That white boy got something to say"

And Haley introduced us to the word "sacrosanct"
We were compelled to change things
We found and demolished the mouse nest
Doc and Mrs. Mitchell had to live in their RV in the driveway for a minute
And Rudy ran for Mayor of New Orleans

In the middle of the battle we found a rich life.
Freddie was a good dancer who faced death
Every day he walked those sharecropper roads with us.

And the righteous Rev. Moore always met us with a smile.
We kept the secret that Farmer was driven to safety in a hearse
And we did not skip a beat.
And I smile remembering being welcomed into families
Who housed and fed us from their land
They opened my spirit and curiosity for life

I cooked my first rabbit at Oretha's.
Her Madear was chef at Dookey Chase's
Even though they called her cook
And had colored and white dining rooms
That's all right because around the corner
Oretha's family hid Freedom Riders in the back house
So that they could rest safe and be fed.

I was sitting on the steps of a closed corner store.
I was 18
When I faced down a double-barreled shotgun pointed at my head
It was in the hands of a white boy as young as me
He was in a light green Ford 150 pick-up truck
We just cold stared at each other for what
seemed like forever and then he just drove away.
My ride picked me up and I breathed again.

And we remembered Jonesboro, home of
Annie P. and her whole family of land owning self-sufficient warriors.
Her Mother Pernella was the Rosa Parks of her youth
And she made the best pound cake.
On Sundays, She would pack her truck with all the kids to go to church.

Vasti's BBQ had colored and white dining rooms Elmo's Freedom House was a true gift with a real shower
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was born in
Jonesboro to protect the Freedom House
And stop night riders from driving through the community.
Chilly Willie was a co-founder and they stood up to the KKK
And Skip who worked at the mill came to the
Freedom House with his sawed off shotgun.
He watched over us every night
So we could rest safe and be fed.

Charlie was a notoriously peaceful white hippie warrior
Who was brutalized for being a race traitor.
He was still running marathons into his seventies.

We were all so sure then
That we could make a difference
Make a world with one dining room
A place for all to rest safe and be fed.

Los Angeles 2021 revision. Copyright © Fatima Cortez-Todd, 2010 & 2021, all rights reserverd.

[In the order of appearance:

CORE — Congress of Racial Equality

Oretha Castle Haley (deceased). Her family had a back house where Freedom Riders could take a safe break and be fed with food that her Madear brought from Dookey Chase's and food she cooked. She was mentor to the movement in New Orleans and travelled the state to oversee various voter registration projects. She would ultimately become Director of the Charity Hospital complex. There now is Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor.

Richard Haley (deceased) was south eastern Director for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) covering from Florida to Louisiana. He married Oretha in the late sixties and they had 4 boys. (two from her previous marriage) Their grandson Blair Dottin-Haley is the creator of Blairisms and #SAVAGECHATSERIES

Dr. & Mrs Mitchell (deceased) helped support the movement and were active in New Orleans

Rudy Lombard (deceased) ran for Mayor in New Orleans and sought Oretha's mentorship and direction. His brother is Judge Edward Lombard.

Freddie Tolliver was just out of high school and lived on sharecropper land. He never missed a day working with us and speaking to his neighbors.

James Farmer — Founder/Executive Director of National CORE. An original member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation evolving ultimately into the Congress of Racial Equality. He worked alongside of Martin Luther King, Jr., initiated/organized the first Freedom Ride in 1961.

Rev. Ronnie Moore was chief of operations for Freedom Summer and Louisiana statewide CORE efforts. He lives in New Orleans and works with former prison inmates re-entry home to family and community with a program he created and is housed with New Orleans Catholic Charity.

Dookey Chase restaurant is legend in New Orleans and functioned as a segregated restaurant until the late sixties, after the civil rights bill was passed.

Annie P. Mason Johnson was/is still an activist in Jonesboro, was arrested for protesting and remained steadfast in her civil rights work to this very day as the head of her family.

Pernella Mason (deceased) was the Rosa Parks of Jonesboro for confronting the school desegregation for the education and respect she knew she deserved. She was mother to two daughters and three sons who supported the family efforts for civil rights going back and forth to Detroit auto industry jobs.

Vasti (deceased) was the queen of BBQ and she fed and supported civil rights workers while maintaining a segregated two room restaurant.

Elmo Jacobs(deceased) worked at the mill and had rental houses. He gave use to CORE for the Freedom House which housed four workers. (a founder of the Deacons for Defense and Justice)

Ernest Thomas (Chilly Willie) (deceased) worked at the mill and did political networking nationally and internationally (a founder of the Deacons for Defense and Justice).

Lee Gilbert aka Skip (deceased) worked at the mill and armed with his sawed off shotgun kept watch at the Freedom House) from midnight til dawn.

Charlie Fenton lived on and off in Jonesboro for years working with CORE. He was the first white student enrolled in Grambling University. He was very badly beaten in the Jackson Parish jail after a protest and was hospitalized. Almost 80, he now lives in Tennessee and ran marathons until the past few years.]

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