Poem by Joan Dresner Bernstein


Policemen and Federalized National Guardsmen
Brothers and cousins in the Klan
Stood at the curb on both sides of her
Holding big dogs, bred to track game, convicts and niggers,
On long leashes.

Leaping, snarling, salivating
Hunting dogs straining
To set their teeth
In the American flesh of the little girl.
     Who walked between them.

A brown skinned ninth grade student
With short hair, plaid dress, and books
Facing forward, walking forward.
A brave, every day American girl going to school
     Down the middle of the street.

Out-of-step with the dogs
Out-of-step with the sidewalk hate chorus
Reaching, screaming, snarling, spitting
Everyday American townspeople
Imprinting words into her flesh forever.

She walked to a baiting, hating, hog-tied Governor
And his power hose color guard at the steps
A martyr for the President
And the waiting world press.

She stayed the course with 7 others
They had to swallow so much hate
I nursed the first of four white babies
Vicariously safe in '58.

I nursed the fourth in August, 1963,
Sat sad and proud of Dr. King
Hoping that his words would gather
Jobs and peace for the aggreived.

Thirty years passed like a shadow
A rally in DC in August 1993
An anniversary, a new call
For Jobs and Peace

Busses were cancelled because money was scarce.
I was in a van of civil rights workers from the '50s
I sat across the aisle
From the shorthaired, brown-skinned girl in the plaid dress.

She slumped in her seat reeling before the first stop.
Feeling the old experience.
Folding herself into a ball.
She said it was flu but it wasn't.
The rest of us knew.

The Klansmen were there, too.
Had she sensed what would be?
Does whispered hate wait forever?
It was there. In every parking lot we pulled into,

"Don't get out of the van," they ordered.
Venom on their tongues.
"Can we get take-out," I, the white one, asked?
"Can I and one other use your restroom?"
"Yir with them ain't ya? Get out of this parking lot.
We have a private party in here."
And so it was except for McDonalds.
From Dallas, Texas to Washington, D. C. on the interstate. Then was now
Same power.
Same hyenas shepherding
The end of the road stop
Same show, blacks in a big car, using the side of the road.

There are challenges, colleges,
Opportunities to be middle class
If you walked the line and were bootstrap
At the same time.

Except for this
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend?
Are we on the downslope of hate?
Ask the ADL, Ask Klanwatch.
Ask her.

Copyright © Joan Dresner Bernstein, 2004, all rights reserverd.

[In 1993 Movement veterans returned to DC for the 30th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.]

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