Poems by Molly Lynn Watt

I finally could write a memoir in poems about that year 1963 where the personal and the political inter-twined each day. I tried prose, but it was too re-stimulating to remember in large chunks — a PTSD alert. Poems allowed me a smaller piece to digest into words. (YouTube Interview about my poetry book "On Wings of Song.)

Dr. King Looked Out
Civil Rights Update
Ballad of Jimmie Lee Jackson
Race Riff
Fayette County Tennessee
Outside Agitator N*****-Lover Commie
Tennessee Road Signs 1963
Which Side Are You On?
Instructions at Rev. Reeb's Home (1965)
Billie Holiday Sings "Strange Fruit (1958)"
Defense Lawyer

[Sung to the tune of "Joe Hill" by Earl Robinson, words Molly Lynn Watt]

I clicked the TV on last night
Dr. King looked out at me
I have a dream, we will live free
And we can make it be
And we can make it be

We walked, we would not ride the bus Montgomery '55
Our feet were tired, our souls alive
Striding side by side
Striding side by side

In Nashville students just sat down
To order lunch one day
No one waited on them, so
They sat day after day
They sat day after day

In Birmingham we filled the streets
With a thousand children's feet
When they were carted off to jail
More children kept the beat
More children kept the beat

In '63 we had a dream
That we could all live free
We marched on Washington, DC
For all the world to see
For all the world to see

In '64 we hoped for more
And thousands volunteered
Taught Freedom Schools,
turned out the vote
Together persevered
Together persevered

We were not stopped by death
nor fright
In Selma '65
Clergy joined our freedom march
To gain full voting rights
To gain full voting rights

By '65 we had legal rights
But life wasn't full and good
We took on northern city blight
For housing, jobs and schools
For housing jobs and schools

Women roared for equal rights
We opposed the Vietnam War
Poor People pitched tents on the mall
We dreamed large dreams for all
We dreamed large dreams for all

Now dreams aren't cast
in bronze or stone
And fifty years are gone
The only way a dream can live
Is when hearts take it on
Is when hearts take it on

So will you join us in the dream
For full equality
Turn off the TV, stand and sing
All people shall live free
All people shall live free

Coda: a chant of hope to refrain tune

Our hearts will take it on
And we can make it be
Striding side by side
We will persevere
For all the world to see
All people shall live free

  Copyright © Molly Watt, 2008, all rights reserverd.



the girl's legs jiggle in skin-tight jeans
as she leans into the mirror
extends her lashes with mascara
adjusts a third earring
plugs in an iPod and
flounces off in a wake
of lavender and attitude

it is almost impossible for her to recall
stories of her grandmother at the same age
wearing a dress, and nylons held by a garter belt
walking dusty roads in Tennessee
inviting tenant farmers
in drought-dried cotton fields
to risk eviction by registering to vote

the girl, really a young woman
studied the example of Dr. King
starred in the play of Rosa Parks
she's steeped in the language of rights
argues with parents to extend her curfew
sends text messages to her friends
posts her hopes on MySpace

she imagines herself a singer
doctor, engineer, poet
cwindow shopping life
as if walking the aisles of T.J. Maxx
for a ready-made fit off the rack
until she becomes bored and will try on
another way to make a difference

she's serious about making a difference
but has not walked with the rhythmic feet of protest
is unaware of the care activists used in dressing
men with Brylcreem in their dos
shined shoes, ironed shirts
chose clip-on ties
ties that unclipped when gripped

they kept their eyes on the prize
picking-off big-picture fights
bus boycotts, freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins
marched for jobs, votes, schools
always singing songs to freedom's beat
they moved like an heirloom pocket watch
each a gear meshing to move time along

this girl owns her civil rights
but cannot imagine her vote will count
she does not know she is living the dream
but must keep dreaming it
or the movement will stop
like her grandfather's clock
Jim Crow still tramps the streets

  Copyright © Molly Watt, 2008, all rights reserverd.


[To all who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and every year since.]

one winter night Jimmie Lee Jackson
with five hundred sisters and brothers
marched down the road singing of freedom
craving the vote the court denied them
one hundred years after emancipation
Alabama's sons and daughters of slaves

    cotton pickers    sharecroppers by trade

    harassed    blocked    lynched

    trying to register to vote

officers lined the street for protection
someone shot out all the streetlights
plunged the town into dark confusion
sheriff deputies and state troopers
kicked at random and beat on folks
with locally made mahogany bats

    special-ordered    extra-long

    special-ordered    ball-bearing tips

    special-ordered    to stop freedom

Jimmie Lee fled with his mother Viola
hid under a table at Mack's Cafi
his grandfather Cager stumbled in
troopers pursued wrestled him down
Jimmie rushed to defend slammed away
a pistol was jammed into Jimmie Lee's stomach

    point-blank shots    blood flooded the floor

    Jimmie fled    collapsed by the bus-stop

    friends got him to Selma in time to die

Jimmie Lee Jackson an American hero
a Vietnam Vet a church deacon
murdered at 26 for trying to vote
the fate of this fighter who fought twice for freedom
wasn't broadcast throughout the nation
just wailed across the black belt of poverty

    the black community was sick from waiting

    the black community began to rumble

    the black community was ready to boil

movement leaders feared a riot
tried to focus the nation on the plight
of backs in a nonviolent struggle for voting rights
they hauled Jimmie onto a mule drawn wagon
pulled his body through miles of poverty
tramped beside him through acres of cotton

    this time the nation carried the news

    the march    the people weeping behind the casket

    a hero murdered    democracy failing

it took one Bloody Sunday of bashed skulls jailings
Dr King's call to clergy from every region
thousands swarmed to Selma to join the march
two more martyrs northerners white
Viola Liuzzo and Reverend Jim Reeb
three marches started just one got through
before the nation began to squirm
before the tide began to turn
for 80-year old Cager to cast a vote

  Copyright © Molly Watt, 2008, all rights reserverd.



keys turn locks   gates clang open   clang shut   muffled moves   leather shoes radio station
      rocks out the news   communist training camp!   thirty captured!

I flash back to being ten at the zoo   I watch the       mama bear and cubs eat and poop   the
      crowd whistles and hoots   I toss my red cape to the sky   it flares into the cage   the
      bears drag it to the den   crowd taunts turn to screams   Daddy slaps
      me and slaps me—I thought they'd got you!

now I'm the one behind bars with my kids   guards usher in Maryville citizens   spiffed up   
      Sunday-best   this tidy mob wafts Evening in Paris through the stench   
      they heckle   they mock us

the guard passes me a too-hot-to-touch tin can of coffee   it leaks   burns my hands   spills
      over the floor   flows over bare toes   the mattress is bare   knocked loose from the
      bunk   stained with grunge   the kids' faces smudged   silky hair tangled   now we're
      the show

I'm an accused agitator   they describe me as humble   for the sake of the kids I try for serene   
      caught like the painted turtle the kids keep in a basin   trapped like fireflies in the
      mason jar by their bed   I'm red-baited   incarcerated   detained by deputies
      presumed KKK   overseen by the Grand Dragon of Tennessee   I   a white mother   
      can't protect my own kids   I'm humiliated   dominated   subjugated   in a kangaroo

  Copyright © by Molly Lynn Watt, Dec 1, 2011.

[This poem appears in the full length memoir "On Wings of Song — A Journey into the Civil Rights Era" by Molly Lynn Watt, Published by Ibbetson Street Press, August 2014. It is refers to her experience as the director of a workcamp for Highlander Folk School building a facility to be used to train anticipated voter registration volunteers to the South, but the whole camp of 15 volunteers from Birmingham and 15 volunteers from the Northern States were rousted out at gun point by unidentified men and taken in unmarked cars and thrown in drunk cells in Maryville, Tennessee. Watt and her then husband, Bob Gustafson, and their two daughters ages 1 and 3 were among those held.]



She didn't like to think about race but
knew she was in a race against time
racing pell-mell along the trickling race
her mind racing she fell skinning her knee
a rivulet of blood spilling into the ground — 
this was not a raceway but a camp
she was not running but walking
walking quickly in a race to nowhere

Raiders yelled black blood is gonna flow
(once she owned a TV saw race riots
saw cattle prods on children) a gun in her ribs
her heart raced risky not racey like a lover
racey like she was losing it right here her
white-looking youngsters her husband
one quarter Mohawk not a time to quibble

  Copyright © by Molly Lynn Watt.


[On the Wings of Discomfort — A Young Family Journeys into the Heart of the 1963 Civil Rights Movement]

our caravan switches roads like switching channels
but everything is in black or white
run-down homes worn-off white paint
black farmers plow black earth with dark mules
late spring cotton planting
feels like summer   our group is parched
but signs say whites only or coloreds only
my little family of four is white but
we are international and integrated — 
from  Haiti  Jamaica  India
West Indies  New Jersey  Vermont

a sign outside Somerville
McFerren's Groceries and Oil
nothing about color
the owner appears in overalls   he's black
grins welcome   starts pumping gas
everyone orders ice cream or coke
John McFerren is proud of his gut and sweat miracle:
when my brother left these parts
I took over this store to supply needs of Negroes
we can only improve the lot of blacks with the vote
but anyone trying to register is evicted
no one will sell to Negroes for credit or cash
I'm blacklisted at warehouses
spend my nights driving back roads
getting stuff from other black store owners — 
see that '53 Ford   got a Thunderbird motor
four-barreled carburetors   does 135 an hour
can out-run the White Citizens Council
can out-run the Klan

we switch channels again
destination — the Somerville Court House
purpose — to interview employees
about voter registration
only white males seem to work here
no one's in a hurry
we sit and wait
my husband Bob goes for a smoke
I hold baby Kristin
a black male student   Jean from Haiti
lifts my 3-year old onto his lap
the clerk looks at golden haired Robin
at Jean's black hands holding her waist
the clerk tells me   little lady   come back
but leave your hired man at home
with your babies

our three-vehicle caravan of international students
tired of working hard to find hospitality   weary of threats
weary of epithet slingers   weary of attackers   weary of stalkers
gun the engines to go where blacks and whites sit down to eat
together   we arrive at Highlander Education Center for dinner

  Copyright © by Molly Lynn Watt.



I'm training Boston volunteers
for Mississippi Freedom Summer
to use nonviolent resistance
in the face of threats and epithets
that will surely be hurled at them
I taunt them as I was taunted
not fun this job pulls up hard memories—
one year since the raid and arrest
one year since our workcamp was razed
one year of shame and nightmares

news breaks   three civil rights workers
missing in Mississippi   presumed slain—

Chaney  Goodman   Schwerner—
silence descends on the room
I see shock on sober faces
some weep
I can't think what to say
we take hands   form a circle
someone hums we shall overcome
we join in singing
yes   this time it was Mississippi
but we know it could be Tennessee
Connecticut   Vermont
or here in Massachusetts
it could be us   we sing softly in prayer
we are not afraid today
deep in my heart I do believe

singing carries us—
the next day all return

  Copyright © by Molly Lynn Watt.

[This poem appears in the full-length memoir On Wings of Song — A Journey into the Civil Rights Era by Molly Lynn Watt. Published by Ibbetson Street Press, August 2014. It refers to her experience following a summer as a workcamp director for Highlander Folk School building a facility to be used to train anticipated voter registration volunteers to the South, but the whole camp of 15 volunteers from Birmingham and 15 volunteers from the Northern States were rousted out at gun point by unidentified men and taken in unmarked cars and thrown in drunk cells in Maryville, Tennessee. Watt and her then husband, Bob Gustafson, and their two daughters ages 1 and 3 were among those held. This made Watt a good person for training volunteers from the Boston area to go to Mississippi, she worked under the direction of Noel Day at St. Marks Social Center in Roxbury, Mass.]



welcome to Tennessee
the volunteer state

the hog and hominy state
the big bend state

dim your lights / behind a car
let folks see / how bright you are / Burma Shave

drinking fountain for whites only
coloreds fountain in the rear

whites seated at the counter
coloreds takeout at the rear

Dinah doesnt / treat him right
if hed shave / dyna-mite / Burma Shave

whites restroom enter here
coloreds restroom in the rear

whites line up at bus front
coloreds enter at bus rear

whites only beyond this point
no dogs no negroes Jim Crow lives here

the monkey took / one look at Jim
and threw the peanuts / back at him / Burma Shave

  Copyright © by Molly Lynn Watt.



a bit of a woman in the meadow
waves a hanky: you-hoo   I'm from over yonder
come to help out with your younguns

she wears a gingham dress   is armed with a hoe

friend or foe?    But she reminds me of granny   
I holler back the kids could use some cultivating!
She laughs this thang's for copperheads    my dear
illustrates by whomping the heads off daisies

baby Kristin rescues a blossom    plucks its petals
Robin counts out she loves me    she loves me not
Florence gathers my girls:   once upon a time
Brer Fox snagged Brer Rabbit for a tasty supper!

Brer Rabbit pleaded    do anything you want
but don't toss me into the bramble patch!
Brer Fox took Brer Rabbit by the scruff of the neck   
and threw that rabbit right to his home in the briars!

Florence hellos Sam as parks his battered truck
I recognize these neighbors by their fame
union organizers from Harlan County Kentucky
but no time for awe-struck or we'd be thunderstruck    

three dozen scattered campers race through downpour
press into the log cabin    I insist Florence and Sam
take the orange crate seats   I know what no one else does!
I prod Florence tell the story of Harlan County!

She starts well in the thirties I was a mother
with hardly a scrap of food for my younguns
Sam was a coal miner who stood up to the bosses
demanding fair wages
   spitfire lights her eyes

now every one in the room is listening up
well either you're with strikers or agin 'em
I tore a page from the calendar    scribbled down
some verses I made up on the spot to an old hymn

and marched out and joined that picket line
Florence sings out in a high mountain twang
will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?
which side are you on?    which side are you on?

without a pause    the Birmingham campers
burst into the freedom song they march to:
will you be an uncle tom or will you be a man?
which side are you on boys? which side are you on?

like Brer Rabbit and the coalminers   
we are in the same fight to outwit Jim Crow
the roof lifts off as we sing out the storm
riding the wings of that gutsy song

  Copyright © Molly Lynn Watt, 2015, all rights reserverd.

[Note: In 1931 Florence Reece wrote the words for the Labor Movement Song "Which Side Are You On?" when her husband Sam was a union organizer for The United Mine Workers striking in Harlan County, Kentucky. Thirty years later in 1961, James Farmer participated in the Freedom Rides. When locked up in a Mississippi Jail he adapted the words of Florence Reece's Song for the Civil Rights Movement with the same name. It was sung all over the South including by Birmingham Freedom Fighters in 1963.

This poem describes a visit from Florence to the North-South Smoky Mountain Workcamp, a project of Highlander Center building a facility to be used to train volunteers to register voters, the camp, directed by Molly Lynn Watt and her then-husband, Bob Gustafson, was composed of 15 Birmingham activists and 15 student volunteers primarily from northern states. Florence Reece, the writer of the original union version of, "Which Side Are You On?" dropped in as a visitor to the workcamp one day, and the two versions of the song met each other, a magical moment! ]



no TV   don't answer the phone
wait until their mother comes home

I've been tidying up supper dishes
starting bedtime routines

his kids peeking through curtains
my kids sleeping in Cambridge

flashing cruisers    TV crews    floodlights
nuns in habits    clergy in collars

some neighbors    some strangers
hold lighted candles    singing — 

this little light of mine
I'm going to let it shine

I'm inside his home trying for normal
no one speaks    no one sings    all is still

the whole world knows
what his kids aren't told

no TV   don't answer the phone
wait until their mother comes home

  Copyright © Molly Lynn Watt, 2015, all rights reserverd.

[See Savage Assault on Unitarian Ministers and Death of Rev. Reeb for background information.]



in a Connecticut nightclub
a woman enters
through eddies of cigarette smoke
a gardenia behind her ear
her white satin gown
too loose for her frame
unsteady she leans on an escort
makes her way to the stage
her ringed hands limp at her waist
she stares through the crowd
opens her ruby mouth
a low dry voice drips flooding the room
southern trees bear a strange fruit

Billie head high eyes shut
puts Jim Crow on stage
I am a witness under the live oak
I am the lynching party
I am the body swaying on the rope
I am not breathing
Lady Day burns out note after note
scorching the darkness
here is a strange and a bitter crop

Lady sways a little
her escort helps her from the stage
someone claps
another joins
the room applauds
as Lady Day fades away

I am twenty witnessing
a double lynching—
the body hanging in the song
the singer ravaged by drugs—
under the attic eaves
in Gramps and Dellas rope bed
I cant get warm enough
I cant get close enough
we conceive our first child
to a chorus of howling ghosts

  Copyright © Molly Lynn Watt, 2015, all rights reserverd.

[In honor of Ed Lynch, defense lawyer for Highlander Center's North South Smokey Mountain Workcamp, The State of Tennessee v Robert L. Gustafson, Summer 1963]

tall talks with a drawl
a local guy wife and kids
not looking for a fight
a lawyer who never blinked
when we asked him

he believes the law will do its work
he has no experience with law enforcers
making up testimony
not possible
not here
even he sees
the law is wearing blinders
he can't win
not this time
not in 1963
in Blount County Tennessee

his wife walks out taking the kids
friends and relatives shun him
clients drop from his practice
the bar association threatens disbarment
unless he departs Tennessee

he's broken alone
lost his practice
sells his home
flees Tennessee
where he'd lived
since born

Molly Lynn Watt, formerly Mary Lynn Gustafson

  Copyright © Molly Lynn Watt, all rights reserverd.

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