Poems by Annette Jones White

Mass Meeting in Albany, Georgia
To Bernice Reagon (Revisited)
Looking Glass Self
The Patio Fishio
On Voting
SNCC and the Porches of Southwest Georgia
SNCC Reunion


People of all denominations, bonding
Coming together in Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Arriving early to get a good seat
Pressing their bodies close to fit
A sanctuary too small to hold them
Or their excitement and expectations.

People in all voices, raising prayers and songs
Responding to deacons lining hymns
Joining voices with singers of freedom songs
Swaying their bodies, clapping their hands
In reaction to words that mirror their needs
And make them feel good about the energy/power they create.

People from all walks of life, leaning forward, straining
Straining to hear every inspiring word from the leaders
Punctuating the speeches with bursts of applause and amens
Crying out in joyous affirmation, overwhelmed
As they rise to share painful personal histories of injustice
That strike familiar chords in everybody's song of discontent.

People taking from a symbolic collection plate of hope
Giving in return their committment to fight for freedom
Pledging to wage a nonviolent war on segregation and discrimination
Believing in themselves and in what they can do together
By putting their very minds, hearts and bodies on the line
In the struggle to remove their bonds of injustice and inequality.

People leaving the meeting late, slowly, hearts pounding
Wanting to hold on to the momentum of the night
Pausing to make conversation with any available listeners
Trying to keep the spirit-born-of-togetherness burning
Not yet aware that each night's meeting
Will be all that it takes to stoke the fires within.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2013, all rights reserved

This was written in 2007 about the first mass meeting in Albany, Georgia in 1961.]



Now, we are at noon of the new day your song foretold decades ago.
That song gave us the promise of America, of unity and opportunity.
We heard your song and saw how far reaching its effects could be.
Your song gave us the courage to fight for justice and equality
In a world that sought to run roughshod over us at every turn.
Your song celebrated victories won and anticipated victories yet to be.

We had been pushed at birth onto individual treadmills of segregation
That were designed to keep us running hard just to stay in the same place.
But your mind, imagination, and spirit were destined to be free,
And, somehow, you were able to intuit this and to act accordingly.
You changed the direction of your treadmill and became our moral compass.
You gave us your song as a beacon of hope when we felt dark despair.

In a defining moment at a mass meeting in Albany, Georgia, you sang a song
And "changed the space around you:" instead of "Music in the Air,"
You sang "Freedom in the Air" and changed the people around you as well.
We, too, saw freedom in the air; but we saw it as a will-o'-the-wisp, unattainable.
Your song made us see freedom as a tangible goal within our reach:
Our souls hungered for it; our voices cried out for it; our bodies filled jails for it.

Despite strides forward, our now sick world needs your song more than ever.
In a time when people have again forgotten that we all are different yet the same,
In a time when people seem bound to turn upon themselves and self-destruct,
In a time when our only home — earth — has been put in harm's way by our greed,
In a time when war and terror have become permanent residents in our realities,
Your song is needed to initiate the healing of a people unaware of their illness.

You possess strength of character that is evident in your song/deeds.
Not confined by self-imposed boundaries or intimidated by obstacles put in your path
You have always sung/lived a life that is free, focused and beautiful
Just as a winding, raging river coursing to the sea is free, focused and beautiful
Or a couple loving for the first time is free, focused and beautiful
Or a newborn breathing on its own for the first time is free, focused and beautiful.

More than just music, your song is you, the life you lead, the example you set.
Your song is the battle cry that leads and sustains us in our public and private struggles.
Something quivers and shivers inside of us when you sing;
Something way down inside of us begins to awaken when you sing.
Your song invades dormant areas in our beings, rousing them to an urgent hunger,
Not for food but for truth, knowledge, direction and commitment.

Your song touches the secret true self that lives in each of us
And brings it from behind the image of the "looking glass self" we face daily.
For many your song is an atlas for living, filled with routes to a meaningful life.
For others your song is a Klieg light of exposure focusing on the stages of their lives,
Illuminating the placeholder roles they have chosen to play
And revealing their repertoires of complacency, bigotry, avarice and fear.

This powerful surge of awareness that your song delivers to the heart and mind
Has the ability to adjust attitudes, reveal hidden talents, alter plans, change lives,
And provide the opportunity to enhance other lives by sharing newfound capabilities.
Your wisdom is acknowledged, sought and accepted by the masses;
Your genius is recognized regionally, nationally and globally.
You are a gift and a treasure that we need in order to alter the chaos of the times.

So continue to do what God and the Muses singled you out to do,
Sing, and let us hear our shortcomings and mistakes, our insecurities and fears,
Our dreams and hopes, and our compassion and goodness---our hearts and souls out loud.
Sing and give us the courage to do what is needed to make positive changes in our world.
Sing and never ever stop singing your walking, talking, living breathing song;
It will be needed for as long as there beats a heart that longs for truth, peace and love.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2013, all rights reserved

This was written as an update of "To Bernice Reagon," a tribute I wrote to her activism in the sixties in southwest Georgia, which was published in Black World in 1970. This is a tribute to her accomplishments in and contributions to the national and global arenas.]



Poised in the bathroom one morning
In mid-reach for jars on the shelf
I stopped and glanced in the mirror
To check on my looking glass self.

There in the brightly lit mirror
Upset and as mad as could be
Stood one I barely remembered
Let alone expected to see.

I smiled; her lips were held tightly.
I waved; she appeared not to see.
I dusted a jar; she whispered,
"My God, what has happened to me?"

She frowned, and her eyes were narrowed
Her voice was as cold as could be
"You forgot the things I taught you
About life and choices and me."

"Once," she said, "We were activists
With home life and civic work, too
You turned us into domestics
And that by itself will not do."

"In life you get only one chance
To be all the things you can be;
Don't bury yourself in housework
Do something for you and for me."

Then she waved and faded away
While I smiled and nodded my head;
I postponed the chore of dusting
And joined the Urban League instead.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2013, all rights reserved

This poem was begun in 1969 after I had worked with SNCC, SCLC and The Albany Movement and was living in upstate New York. I had two children and was an activist-turned-housewife who was suppressing the need to be active. I put it aside, unfinished, when I became active with the Urban League, but finished it in 2008.]



In the early sixties, on a street named Cotton,
Dr. Martin Luther King was not forgotten.
In Albany, Georgia in a house on that street,
There lived a man whose respect for King was complete.

He had watched Dr.King on the television screen;
He had seen him in person on the Albany scene.
He believed in King and in his philosophy
So he thought he would honor him for all to see.

He built a memorial on the lawn of his front yard;
It was a labor of love — he worked very hard.
He displayed a picture of King and just beyond'
He put water and gold fish in a store-bought pond.

He tried to quote the man he held in high esteem
And above King's picture he wrote "I Has a Dream."
He added seats, lights and a printed sign to show
That he called his tribute Patio Fishio.

Many people came to see it both day and night;
They whispered about the quote with the verb not right.
Comments ranged from "Oh, he means well" to "Oh, how sad;"
Some said it made the whole community look bad.

When the man's tribute was shown on local TV,
The camera dwelt on the quote so all could see.
Critics found no fault with the tribute, it would seem;
They just wanted the quote changed to "I Have a Dream."

The man was never told why critics objected
And did not know the quote should be corrected.
Perhaps disheartened by the critics in the town;
One day,the man took Patio Fishio down.

Nothing was left on the lawn, not even a chair
It was as though the tribute had never been there.
So there was nothing to mark King's Albany stay,
Not a thing to showcase his non-violent way.

No, nothing to show that he had ever been there,
Not a plaque or a King school or King thoroughfare.
Later, the City was asked to honor his name;
But despite many requests, things remained the same.

In 1975, after years had passed,
Albany named a street for Dr. King (at last!)
Although that street sign is perfect to the letter,
Patio Fishio honored him better.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2014, all rights reserved


During the week we honored Dr. King,
I often found myself remembering
SCLC's Citizenship School — 
A proponent of the vote as a tool.

Many youths went there for a week-long class;
I learned how to teach my elders to pass
The registrar's reading and writing test
So their votes could be cast with all the rest.

I recall how back then youths took the lead
Voter registration or some other need.
With much admiration I'm proud to say
Youths are stepping to the forefront today.

Beginning in Ferguson, youths took command
Of a quest for justice that spread through the land.
That movement, multicultural in scope,
Is self sustaining and gives us all hope.

But lately, I heard some young people say
"I'm not going to vote, not ever, no way."
They say by voting nothing is won,
That riots and violence get things done.

Some who have not registered say they won't;
Some registered who can vote say they don't.
It is clear that they do not understand
What they can do with a ballot in hand.

Let us remind those youths that people died
So that we could vote and help to decide
The vital issues that affect us all
And not have others always make the call.

When you don't exercise your voting right
You forfeit your voice, diminish your might.
When those in office are corrupt without doubt,
Your vote could be the one to turn them out.

To all of those who look but do not see
The vote can be two things and so can we:
Nonviolent weapon when we choose it.
Potential world changer when we use it.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2015, all rights reserved


Ordinary, yet extraordinary, in segregated Southwest Georgia,
Front porches and back porches were like transparent extra rooms attached to houses,
Displaying scenes of events that went on in the inner sanctum.
Front porches were stages upon which glimpses of a peoples' culture were presented
By actors who received instant reviews from the audience.
And actors and audience, who were the same, interchanged their roles back and forth.
Front porches were settings for wicker rockers, wooden swings and metal gliders — 
Seats for the weary who sought a place of comfort at the end of the workday.
Front porches were places where greetings were dispensed to passersby,
Where old folks told stories about bygone heroes who had made a difference — 
Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Alice Coachman, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others — 
Where young folks embraced those heroes with admiration and as role models
Where day to day problems were discussed and solved
Where family and friends gathered for birthday parties and weddings
Where a black-wreathed door was the sleeve upon which a family wore its grief
Where courting or bespoken couples held sway on Sunday nights.
Life's cultural rituals were practiced on the front porch — 
And then SNCC and Charles Sherrod came to town

With winning smiles, handshakes and a sense of belonging on the porch,
They entered from stage left dressed in denim and plaid.
Welcomed as visitors, they changed the thrust of southern front porch sitting.
They spoke of Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Miss Ella Baker, Bob Moses,
James Forman, Whitney Young, Constance Baker Motley and others.
They spoke their lines of voter registration and the power of the ballot
And of the need for all citizens to register and vote.
They spoke of non-violent protest marches against segregation
And the cast on the porch was abuzz with interest and curiosity.
Their conversations turned from their problems to societies problems
They were eager to become a part of the actions that would effect change
Front porch sitting would never be the same
Because SNCC and Charles Sherrod had come to town.

The back porch was a private stage for personal ordinary things
Where unsmiling family members/actors performed basic necessary tasks:
Where weathered hands flew up and down the rub board on wash days
Where strong hands turned the crank of the ice cream freezer
Where deft hands dressed poultry, game and fish for the supper table
Where resolute hands churned cream until it became butter.
The back porch was also a child's classroom for on the job training
Where practical lessons were taught, and tests were taken on the spot
Where fathers guided the hands of sons in shucking corn and weaving cane seats
Where mothers oversaw the hands of daughters in shelling peas and "picking greens"
Where young fingers turned cloth scraps into patterned quilts
Where young sing-song voices repeated Bible verses, nursery rhymes and the alphabet
Life's living skills were passed on and learned on the back porch.
And then like the/ problem solving deus ex machina in Greek drama
SNCC and Charles Sherrod dropped in and changed the scene

With smiles, a hardy handshake and a "Let me give you a hand,"
They gained acceptance by becoming a part of the scene.
While helping with chores, they spoke their lines of freedom from segregation
As they took names of those willing to be taken to try to register to vote
And of those willing to march in protest of inequality.
With smiles and hugs and a willingness to join them,
They sat with the children, sang their songs, repeated their verses
And taught them other songs they could understand — 
"Oh Freedom," "I Woke up this Morning," "Dog", and "Governor Wallace".
The role of the back porch was given added dimensions.
The back porch was no longer just a stage for chores
And for passing on skills from one generation to another
The back porch became a happy vibrant place
Filled with laughter and Freedom Songs and talk of changing the status quo
Because SNCC and Charles Sherrod came to town.

The front porch was also a place of reprieve for tired bodies, minds and souls,
A place where sometimes the body was still while the mind was restless
Where eyes witnessed scenes being played on neighboring porches — 
Neighboring porches where the civil rights activists had also spoken their lines
That broadened the interests of the rest of the other characters
And encouraged them to become activists for human rights
Where because of SNCC 's role on the porches
The Southwest Georgia Project took center stage
And the interests of the families were changed forever.
Because of SNCC the front porch was no longer just a stage for refuge or rituals
Because of SNCC the front porch was a place of free thought and discussion
Because of SNCC the front porch was no longer a setting for humdrum chores
Because of SNCC the front porch took on an atmosphere of hope and promise
Because of SNCC hearts and minds were set on attaining first class citizenship
Because of SNCC Southwest Georgians marched for freedom and filled the jails
And many cities changed laws and afforded new opportunities to Black people
Because of SNCC young imaginations grew and soared — 
Young people dreamed of opportunities that had not been open to them in a segregated society
They realized that new doors were open, and many things were possible;
They could expand their horizons and become more than they ever dreamed
Because SNCC and Charles Sherrod came to town.

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2015, all rights reserved



Of remembered faces...

Copyright Annette Jones White, 2015, all rights reserved

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