Excerpt from Eyes Shut Tight
Campaigning in the South...
News of the near-historic Stokes campaign had spread nationwide. Those of us who'd been involved were sought after by black candidates elsewhere. I was approached by my next-door neighbor, a black demolition contractor whose friend in Alabama was going to run for the state legislature. If elected, he would be the first black legislator since Reconstruction. My neighbor, Obie Elie, asked if Gerry and I would go. There would be no money, but that was not a biggie for us. The answer was yes.
Running in the same area was a young black man who was attempting a feat at least as dramatic; he was running for county Sheriff. There wasn't at that time in 1966 a black county sheriff in the entire country, north or south. The civil rights movement was ablaze and white liberals were engaged in one giant orgasm of self-gratification and the assuaging of 300 years of white guilt. Northern whites were running to the south like the great California gold rush to get their heads bashed, legs broken, killed, spat upon and called a nigger lover. It was the mother lode of self-abuse and everyone who wished could stake a claim. Besides, there was no Holy Grail in the north. Everyone could sit anyplace on a bus and a young, attractive educated black female could get a job almost anywhere at a "front desk." So the white liberals of the north decided to carry the message of brotherly love to the rednecks of the south and, if in luck, would bring back some battle scars of mind or body. A few did it in a hearse.
"Buster," Gerry said, "you sure you know what we're getting into?"
"Hell no, partner! That's what makes it so great!"
"Man, you're crazy!"
"You are not exactly Nancy Normal yourself!"
"You little bastard!"
"Ta ta, Lady Alice, is that any way to talk to a gentleman?"
"I don't know that I see one to talk to!"
"Would you recognize it if you saw it?"
"I swear you're a nigger!"
"Can't you say black person?"
"Sure can. But I swear you're a nigger!"
We both laughed as the commercial plane droned on to Montgomery, Alabama.
We had left Cleveland on a cold, dreary March day. In Montgomery, we were greeted by a rush of warm air and bright sunlight. Ordinarily, we would have flown in my small plane but the Cleveland weather was bad and the candidate and campaign awaited. Besides, we were anxious to get started.
The candidate couldn't meet the plane, but the slight Negro man waiting for us easily recognized this pair. Not many biracial couples got off an airplane in these parts, or out of a car, or into a taxi, or walked down the street, or were obviously just plain good friends.
"Miss Williams, Mr. McGee, I'm Willy Anderson, and Attorney Gray asked me to pick you up and drive you to Tuskegee."
"Hi, Willy, I'm Gerry and this is Ken. You got yourself a nice warm day here."
"Yes, we have. It's mostly always warm and beautiful here. You've been in the South before?"
Gerry answered, "Oh, have I! Spent part of the war here with my ex-husband, wasn't always so beautiful, as I recall."
"Well, I suppose that's so, but it's not always beautiful where you come from either, Gerry."
"By God, you're right, Willy!"
"Ever been to the South before, Ken?"
"Yes, I have. I was born in the southwest in Oklahoma." (I had hesitated, wondering if all blacks in the South hated all whites born there.) "I guess that's not really the South, but everyone laughed at the way I talked when I moved north."
I thought back to the day I had left Oklahoma City. I had made the rounds to say goodbye to all of my friends, other than my schoolmates. I had sold War Bonds door to door and knew many of the merchants and the folks who worked for them. I had gone to the barbershop. The black shoeshine "boy," not so much a friend as an acquaintance, turned to me when I walked in and said: "You really moving up north, Kenny?"
"You excited about it?"
"I hate it."
"Leave all my friends, don't know anybody there."
"You be all right, Kenny. Everybody like you. Hey, someday could you let me know something, maybe if you ever come back?"
"They tell me colored kids go to school with white kids up there. Actually go to the same school and sit alongside each other? Do you think that's true?"
"Well, Kenny, I'd sure like to know if that's really true, colored kids and white kids goin' to school together! Will you come to see me when you come back and tell me?"
I looked at him with my fourteen year old eyes for a long moment. I suddenly felt quite sad. "Sure, I will. I'll come see you when I come back and tell you." "Well, take care of yourself, Kenny."
I never came back to see him, and I always wished I had. I would have liked to be the one to tell him that what he heard was true.
The ride from Montgomery to Tuskegee was warm and pleasant. We chatted as we drove out of the city and into what could be easily recognized as the Deep South. Flowers and shrubs were in bloom and children walked the dirt roads in bare feet. Perched on the banks of muddy rivers were black children with bamboo fishing poles searching out the catfish. Men walked behind old-fashioned plows hitched to sad-looking mules. The sun warmed people who sat on the steps of shacks. Every home, no matter how barren, had a dog. The side roads were already dusty from lack of rain, and the pick-up truck reigned supreme.
For all its poverty, it seemed not at all unpleasant. A way of life, I thought, and a hell of a lot better than the tenement life on Hough Avenue back in Cleveland. At least a little space, some stars at night, a bamboo pole and a river. Being a second-class citizen wasn't right for any human being. Your placement on a bus, your right to go to a restaurant, your right of choice to participate in the electoral process was all of utmost importance. But, damn, the white man's ability to look at you and not see you were no different in the Promised Land of the North than it was here. Yes, I can see, I thought, why so many of them think of the South as home. Keeping your place was the big thing, and Gerry and I and hundreds like us were here to straighten that one out, and then to go home.
The candidate greeted us at the door to his office and introduced us all around. I noticed that I was the only white person there. They noticed, too. I caught the eyes studying Gerry and me. We were just as much the odd couple to these folks as to those white folks who stared at us getting off the plane. Possibly, it was easier for the whites to categorize and file away. Contempt makes for easier decisions when categorizing.
Gerry, in her flamingo-colored slacks and bright print shirt, with her positive demeanor and commanding way, was as much an enigma to the campaign workers as the clean-cut white fellow with the quiet manner and engaging smile. The candidate discussed the campaign to date with us and laid out the schedule for the day. We would travel with him. Everyone gathered around to see the designs of the bumper sticker and the gummed-paper stock we had brought from Cleveland. It was like Christmas for a three-year-old. Eyes widened and excitement grew, as though they never had dreamed such high-powered campaigning could come to rural Alabama. Nothing would do but that the candidate and the duo from Cleveland would make an immediate trip to the printer's to have the bumper stickers made. Victory is in sight.
I pulled Gerry aside. "My God, we're gonna be frigging geniuses down here. Wait 'til we hit them with a telephone campaign!"
"Buster, we are geniuses. Now don't you forget it." Then she said, "Hey, Buster, do you think we really have to stay with this cat while we're here?"
"I guess so. It sounded like it. They say it's safer for us that way. Some civil rights guy was killed walking from the bus station last year, and this is supposed to be the safe place in Alabama!
"Still, I hate to stay at other people's houses."
"Me, too, but I'd hate to stay permanently in their cemetery. We couldn't even be together."
"Buster, you are one sentimental guy."
"It's my pleasure to serve."
As we were leaving for the printer's, a short, heavyset black man came in to the office and listened intently to the conversations about the bumper stickers. Finally, someone noticed him and introduced him to Gerry and me.
"Gerry and Ken, this is Lucius Amerson, and he's running for county Sheriff here in Macon County."
"Glad to meet you," he said, and without pausing, "Could I talk to you both when you have time?" His demeanor was more tense than unassuming. He didn't smile, but who would if they were black and running for sheriff in Alabama? "I have a flyer I would like you to take a look at," he said. "You did Stokes' campaign, right?" and without waiting for an answer, "I've taken law enforcement courses in the mail and I want people to know I'm qualified. I can be here anytime you have the time."
"Sure," Gerry said, "glad to do it. You just may have a real good chance."
Finally, Lucius Amerson, black candidate for county Sheriff in the Sovereign State of Alabama, gave the slightest flicker of a smile, more in the eyes than in the mouth. "I'll be back later," he murmured and left as quietly and unobtrusively as he had arrived.
"Strange cat," said Gerry.
"Yeah, but he must be all guts to run for that job down here," I replied. "Let's help him."
"Why not?" she said.
Because of the many killings and beatings that had occurred in the civil rights movement in the South, Gerry and I had both made promises that during the course of the campaign we would not leave the relatively safe environs of Macon County, home of Tuskeegee Institute.
Gerry had promised her aged mother, for whom she was the sole support, and I had promised my wife. It was the only way either of us could get a family blessing for our adventure. Macon County was about the safest county in Alabama for black people and although there were no black elected officials, its population was about 80% Negro. Tuskegee Institute had long been a highly respected Negro College and helped to make the entire county somewhat of a safe harbor for students and adults alike. Still, the rest of the county would never tolerate a black sheriff. That was going too far.
State representative candidate Fred Gray had to run in three counties, and the voter registration of blacks in the other counties was minimal. But he had a shot at it. The biggest job was to get the base vote in Macon County to the polls on Election Day. The problem with most candidates and most campaigns was that everyone thinks the other guy's votes all count as two and your own as one. They each count just as one -- and that's only if they vote. In other words, there is often too much concentration in time and effort in getting the opponents' votes to switch sides. As a consequence, too often you neglect your own known strength and don't see to it they are motivated to the polls on Election Day to place their X in the right place. If they don't go to the polls and don't put the X in the right place, they aren't worth much when the votes are counted. This is terribly simplistic but all too many candidates have gone down the drain for neglect of it. "Hunt ducks where the ducks are," is an old political axiom, often forgotten. Hunting ducks was exactly what Gerry and I planned to do, and also a good rationale for staying in Macon County.
At the end of the day's activities, the candidate said to us, "Get ready to leave. We're going to Bullock County tonight." Gerry and I looked at each other and I muttered to her, "The best laid pans of mice and men."
"Right, Buster," she replied. Gerry turned to Gray, said, "Let's go." To me, she whispered, "Do I dare tell Mama?" I whispered back, "I'm not your damn keeper. I've got my own problems!" We got in the car and headed to Bullock County, Alabama.
We got to the county seat, drove past the small main street, and on to the dark streets and dimly lit areas of the black section of town. We pulled up in front of what appeared to be a large, dark home, with a porch that wrapped around two sides of the building. A small sliver of light came through drawn curtains. As we climbed steps to the porch, a light-skinned black man in dark pants and a white shirt appeared in the doorway. Slung across his arm was a shotgun. As we came up the stairs, he stepped out on the porch and looked up and down the street. "Go on in," he said, "I'll be right there." He walked out to the sidewalk and again looked up and down the road. At first I couldn't make out what was stacked up on the porch. They looked like large wooden crates.
"My God," Gerry said, "do you see what I see?"
"What are they?" I said.
"Coffins, Buster. Coffins! This is a funeral home!"
"How lovely," I replied. And we walked into a room filled with somber looking black men.
"You're a minority here," I whispered to Gerry, "the only woman."
Introductions were made as the men studied us. The man who had greeted us at the door returned and was introduced. He was C. J. Elie (C. J. being the totality of his Christian name) and he was the candidate for Sheriff of Bullock County. After a dozen threats and two attempts on his life, he had reason to be not only somber, but careful. The gun wasn't an affectation. He needed it, partly for show, maybe for go. It turned out he did have a good sense of humor and later in our trips to Bullock he told us how his white father had visited his black mother regularly, took care of his black sons and daughters, and they all carried his name. C.J. had freckles and red hair. He liked his white father and was able to see the humor in the situation. Several women did show up, and the meeting began. We worked on details of the campaign in Bullock County for Gray and helped with C.J.'s campaign.
At the end of the meeting, held in a back room with blacked-out windows and one low-wattage bulb in a ceiling fixture, the group formed a circle around the room. I thought they were going to say a prayer. They joined hands. One person started to sing and then all joined in, "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day." I looked around the room. I was holding Gerry's hand on one side, that of a short black man on the other side. I was the only white person in the room and though no one noticed, my voice choked up and tears filled my eyes.
This had to be a most important and most beautiful moment. This was why I was here, this was why we had traveled this road, my partner and I, this was what it was all about in this small dimly lit room with folks I had never met before, this was the reason for the strife, this was the reason for the sacrifice, this was the reason for the deaths of many, this was the civil rights movement in America. On this night, we were all brothers and sisters. It was a moment I will always treasure.
On election eve, Gerry and I visited the funeral home headquarters again. When we walked in, everyone started talking and shouting at once. The reason: a local white-owned store was the location for many of the blacks in the vicinity to vote. The owner, J.R. Alston, had told locals that, "No niggers are gonna vote in MY store tomorrow!" It was a disaster.
"What are we going to do?" several people said in unison.
"Can he do that?"
"Where are the federal marshals?"
Everyone was talking at once.
"Where is your phone?" I asked.
"In the back room. What are you going to do?"
"Come with me" I said to all. "But you have to be very quiet, not a word while I am on the phone, I mean not a sound!"
"OK," in unison.
"Have you got his phone number at the store?"
"Sure" said C.J.
"Let's do it."
I dialed the number.
"Like to speak to J.R." I said.
"This J.R., who's askin'?"
"My name's Steve, Steve Brody. Can I call you J.R.?"
"Depends. Who are you?"
"J.R., I'm with the Associated Press out of Atlanta and I called to tell you something, something I just picked off the wire service, something you might like me to do something about."
"What's that ?"
"Well, J.R, first let me tell you, we're all in this together here in the South. I don't like those damn northerners coming down here trying to tell us what to do anymore than you do, damn commies and the federal agents in their suits and ties, all just wanting to make trouble, J.R. They want to destroy our way of life!" "You got that right!"
"J.R., I don't blame you for keeping the niggers from votin' in your store. Trouble is if this story goes out all over the country on the wire services we'll be making more trouble for ourselves than it's worth just to keep a few of them from voting. Those damn commie agents that call themselves federal marshals will be all over your place. You'd be lucky to sell a dime's worth of goods by the time a hundred of 'em filled up your store and stayed 'til the cows come home!"
"What you sayin'?" "Well, just between you and me, I'll pull this story and no one's goin to see it, just our secret, but I guess your gonna have to let 'em vote. They not goin' to make much difference anyway."
"Niggers can vote here tomorrow."
"Thanks, J.R. I think we're doing the right thing."
"No Steve, it's me thanking you. You're a real gentleman."
"My pleasure, J.R. We're in this together. Goodbye."
As soon as I hung up the phone the room exploded. They were laughing so hard, some of them cried. They were high-fiving, slapping each other on the back.
"Ken, you're something else!"
"Ken, you're the man."
"Ken, are you sure you're white?"
"Well," I told them, "I heard once that the only thing you are absolutely sure of in life is who your mother was!"
Peels of laughter......election eve was a resounding success.
Blacks voted all day at the store of C.J. Alston. I had made up the name Steve Brody that night. It was years later that I found out that a real Steve Brody was the first person to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and live. It seemed appropriate to have picked that name out of the blue. I used it again the next day.
Election Day came and, as planned, we rode the polling places with a driver. He was black, of course, and drove us to the various polling places and the churches where the black folks would congregate before going to vote. Many in the rural areas were illiterate and needed a person to go with them to help them vote. Lurleen Wallace, George's wife, was running for governor and in the primary the white poll workers would not allow the illiterate people to bring a person of their choice to help them, even though it was the law. When they took the person into the booth, they would say, "Now, you don't want Lurleen Wallace, do you?"
"Well then, we'll just put an X by her name to cross her out!"
Lurleen had won the primary handily.
Of course, they realized what had happened. When Gerry and I pulled up to a black church, we saw a large group of people standing around. They wanted to go to the polls and vote, but they needed someone to help them. Rumor was that there were federal marshals around, but nobody knew where or when they would show up. This proved to be a benefit. Could Gerry and I help?
Gerry was dressed in a stunning outfit. She looked, again, like an African queen. I had on an expensive Brooks Brothers beige gabardine suit and my aviator sunglasses, looking enough like a Fed to be one. There was an old married couple waiting to vote and neither one could read or write. Their names were January Jackson (evidently born in January) and Savannah Jackson (evidently born in Savannah). They were in their eighties, and they wanted to vote for the first time. Gerry and I looked at each other. I took his arm, Gerry took Savannah's arm, and we all got into the car.
As we drove up to the white church where blacks were to vote, there were at least 100 standing in line. Many had come far to vote in this church in the middle of nowhere. They had refused to proceed unless they could take in a person of their choice to help them vote. There were about fifty pickup trucks with white men in them parked up and down the road, on either side. Our driver had to park about a block away. We each took the arm of our elderly voters, stooped from age but head held high. January and Savannah walked the gauntlet of pickup trucks slowly, partially from age, mostly from courage as they were determined to vote this day!
We got to the building with glares and stares from the pickup trucks. They must have wondered, "Who are these people?" I realized that we were counting awfully heavily on attire, aviator glasses, and demeanor. Could we pull it off?
We walked inside the polling place and were met by a middle-aged white man. He wore slacks and a starched white short-sleeve shirt, his face was flushed, his arms were massive and he looked like a bull ready to charge. I didn't know if we would ever make it back to the car. It is an image and a feeling that I remember to this day.
I spoke first. "My name is Steve Brody, and Ms. Williams and I have been sent to help these folks vote. Our mission is to assure that everyone that wants to can have a person of their choice to help them to vote. We have to tell you that this is the law and it is expected that the other folks outside will have the same privilege when we leave. Do you understand that this is the law?"
"We know the law."
"Good. We are here to help January and Savannah Jackson. Can we proceed?"
We got inside of the voting cubicle. Holy shit, they were voting machines and I had never voted on a voting machine. I started to shake on the inside. One, I had to figure out how to vote on the damn thing. Two, were those rednecks really going to believe my act, and if not, were we ever going to get back to the car, if in fact, it was still there and, if so, would we ever get back to Tuskeegee, at least as walking, talking, breathing, human beings? I stood in the voting both and tried to control my breathing and not show signs of fear. It was going to be a long walk back through the gauntlet. We turned to the poll workers:
"Thank you," I said.
"Thank you," said Gerry.
There were glares, silence and unspoken words from the white poll workers. The man's arms looked even bigger when we walked out than when we walked in. The walk back to the car was dreadfully slow. The emotions of the Jacksons were unseen to the eye, no doubt it had been that way for generations, or for as long as they could remember. But emotion was there, you could feel it in their being, in the holding of their hands, and in their step. They got back in the car with the driver.
"Thank you," said January.
"Thank you," said Savannah.
"No, thank you," Gerry and I said in unison.
After dropping off the Jacksons we continued our rounds. It was another law stating there could be poll workers of the candidate's choice at each of the polling places and also as observers inside the polling place. The first one we pulled up to, there was a black woman sitting on the ground outside. I asked her what was up and she said that she was a poll worker for Fred Gray and the whites would not let her inside. She had tried to go in, and they wouldn't let her. I asked Gerry and the driver to stay in the car, and I walked into the polling place and was met by a white man.
"What can I do for you?" the man said.
"I'm on assignment in this district to make sure that the federal laws are followed. Why is that poll worker sitting outside?"
"Niggers aren't coming in here."
"Well, sir, my job is to inform you of the law and the consequences of the law if it is not followed. Obviously, I cannot physically make you do this but I strongly recommend you hear what I say and follow the rules for you own sake.
"And the rules," he said, as if spitting out the unstated word, "Yankee?"
"The rules are that the lady sitting outside is a poll worker for Fred Gray. She has as much right to be here as you have a right to be here and we expect her to be so at the moment I finish this sentence. Do you understand," I said, as if spitting out the unstated word, "Redneck?"
"Yes, we'll let her in, but the government ain't got no right to tell us what to do in our own building." "Evidently the government does have the right, but I thank you for your cooperation and YOUR government thanks you, too."
I turned on my heels and walked to the car.
"How did it go Buster?"
"You see her sitting on the ground still?"
"No, she just went inside. What in hell did you do?"
"Agent Brody is my name, and freedom and justice is my game."
"You're so full of shit, your eyes are brown."
"My eyes have always been brown."
"What does that tell me?"
"That I was born with beautiful brown eyes that are sometimes hidden by my federal marshal aviator glasses."
"Buster, I think you might not be able to carry this off every place. Should we quit while we're winning?"
"Sure, like we'll quit while we're on a roll. This is too great! A gabardine suit and Rayban sun glasses. I look like Bobby Kennedy dressed me. Roll on, Big O!"
The gambit was successful at two more polling places and I was heady with success as I walked up to the third, where the black poll worker was sitting outside. I was greeted at the door by another starched white shirt and florid face. Before the man could say anything, a young white woman from a group that came down from Wooster College in Ohio for election day activities called to me from the back of the room "Mr. McGee, Mr. McGee, these people are --" I cut her short with a stare and acted like she must be mistaking me for somebody else.
"Who are you?" the man said.
"I really can't tell you who I am and do not even have identification on me. Do you know what that means?" (I had no idea what it meant.)
"Where are you from?"
"I am assigned to Barbour, Macon, and Bullock Counties to assure that this is a fair and honest election." The man moved forward and all of the rest of the poll workers got up, except the few students from Wooster College. They all started to move towards me.
The brave young man, would-be Federal Agent with the beige gabardine Brooks Brothers suit and the aviator glasses turned on his heels and started to the door. My pace quickened as I walked quickly to the car.
"Let's get out of here!"
"Why, Buster, I thought we were doing an encore?"
The driver said, "Shall we go back the same way that we came?"
"NO." Then a helicopter appeared overhead. "I think we might want to go to Tuskeegee fast and maybe not too direct."
"Did Bobby Kennedy really dress you?"
"Oh, shut up!"
That night, I would learn an important lesson, which was to never write a victory statement until victory was assured. As we sat taking results from the precincts, Fred Gray was 500 votes ahead. There were still precincts out, mostly from the white areas but it looked like Gray had enough to carry it as I wrote his victory statement. Gray lost by a hundred votes. And I never again wrote such a statement until victory was assured.
Lucius Amerson won and become the first black sheriff in the United States of America. The man with the mail-order police degree made history and held his position for many years. Fred Gray would run again for the legislature in 1970 -- and win.
The two partners flew back to Cleveland, where the black newspaper hailed us as heroes home from the war. As the plane was flying out of Montgomery, Gerry turned to me and said, "Were you scared?"
"Shitless," I said. "How about you?"
"Shitless," Gerry replied.PREVIEW EYES SHUT TIGHT