Freedom Fighters

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Here’s a story my grandpa told about a friend he had from Birmingham. He’d gather us kids around and we’d listen, the big ones shushing the little ones and holding them on our laps. Must’a been near a hundred when he died, but what he told us lives on.

I knew it was over when Jesse told me his people could fly. We were down at the creek and when he said it I had a feeling that the Old South was destined to collapse like a circus tent after the last performance. Not that I’d ever say that to my daddy. He was sympathetic to old Dixie. Figured things had to change some after the North won the war. But he couldn’t see it changing that much.

“Come on,” Jesse said. “I’ll show you.”

Instead of digging crawdads for supper, we spent the afternoon leaping from boulders, arms spread, rolling into the water. We confessed to Jesse’s mama in the kitchen at the big house. Thanks to her being from a long line of Gullah storytellers, she forgave us. That tale of magic, passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next, saved our hides.

Me and Jesse, we stayed in touch even when I went up to Boston for school. When I come back six years later to practice law at my daddy’s firm, Jesse was the first one I hired. He was whip smart; did my research. I wished he’d had a law degree. He fled north when vigilantes carried out their coup against some of our duly elected aldermen, 1898 I believe, in Wilmington. I gave him a password so he could get through the cordon the Klan set up the night before all the bloodshed. In the dark, he could pass. The way that damned mob went through destroying the businesses in the colored section of town was enough to make you think the whole thing was over, the whole Emancipation. But it wasn’t. Like so many of the survivors, the wish for justice went into hiding but it never died.

Jesse was lucky. He settled in DC, where he got another law job with a friend of mine from school. I tried to get him to come back to Wilmington, but he found his calling in the capitol. I sat in the front row at his law school graduation. Turned out he was good at organizing and that city was ripe for protest. Much of the segregation in Washington was enforced by custom, not law. They had more marches there than a centipede has legs. I visited him, but he never come down to North Carolina. Not until 1965 when he stopped on his way to Alabama for what he said might be his last protest, but maybe his best.

Me and Jessie were ninety years old, riding in that caravan our kids started to Montgomery to hear Dr. King speak. It was six carloads all told. Seniors at the wheel, a passel of squirming grandchildren in the back while them could walk marched across the Pettus Bridge. Jesse and I looked at each other when Dr. King said the words, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Afterwards, Jesse said, “That moral arc Dr. King talked about must be a rainbow. You need faith to believe there’s an end to it.”

“And do you? Have faith?” I thought I knew the answer to that, but I didn’t expect him to say what he did.

“If anybody’s going to find justice at the end of a rainbow, it’s the people who fly?” He picked up his two year old great-granddaughter. “You remember that story, don’t you?”

I nodded.

Then he passed that child, arms spread, to her mother and said. “This one’s in training.”

So that’s the story. That little girl was my play cousin Sarah. You’ve met her. A tiny woman. Strong as an eagle, wise like an owl. She’s flying with a slew of others across the land. They’re darkening the sky for justice, a righteous swarm of freedom fighters. They carry the message that we are a nation of laws, not custom; that faith is not enough. In the spots where the sun shines through the clouds of flapping wings, both ends of the rainbow are within reach of anyone with the will and the courage to fly.

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