At Brown Chapel it was hot. No breeze in the courtyard before the church and no air conditioning in the car that brought Percy to Selma from the Montgomery airport. Two boys, anonymous soldiers in Martin Luther King’s struggle for voter rights had met Percy in the terminal and led him to a battered Chevrolet for the ride to the front lines. They were so young; both looked to be no more than teenagers. A few years younger and they could be Percy’s sons. Names were exchanged: Jeremiah Dobbs, Aaron Henry, Percy Moneyworth. Then there was no more conversation. Both boys looked straight ahead, Jeremiah Dobbs behind the wheel, Percy alone in the back seat. In the silence, Percy could feel the tension rise as they entered a long empty stretch of highway 80. It was as though the boys knew something secret about their destination and didn’t want to get too close to the naïve innocent in the back seat. In front of them the road stretched silent and empty, like a long black funeral ribbon pinched in by a wall of pine trees on either side. Unraveling from the horizon, the ribbon slid black beneath them, unchanging and monotonous. The car not moving, suspended, it was the earth that turned, spinning the car’s wheels, bringing Selma to Percy. This narrow emptiness was a place out of time, desolate and barren of life except for the three passengers watching the silent world pass. If a car had appeared suddenly behind them, Percy wasn’t sure what he would have done but he knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. Now he watched Aaron Henry reach in the glove compartment and take out a Colt 38mm revolver and place it on the seat between himself and the driver. Percy leaned over the front seat and stared at the gun. It was black, had a long barrel and to Percy appeared huge and threatening. He asked why the gun. As if, in response to a prompt, Aaron Henry glanced over his shoulder at Percy, leaned forward and between his feet, fished an oily rag from beneath the bench. He placed it over the Colt. Then he half turned and looked at Percy, “What planet you from?” he said. And shaking his head in disbelief, “And you a nigger too.” Then both boys laughed and glanced over their shoulders at Percy.
The asphalt in the 18th and K intersection is soft from the intense heat. The air is visible in radiant waves rising from its black surface. The white stripes marking the crossing shimmer in the sunlight. The bus, an overheated tube, is waiting in the suffocating air for Percy, alone in the crossing, to clear its path. Impatient, it edges forward, angles further into its turn on 18th until Percy is framed in its monstrous windscreen. There is a slight tap on the horn. Arms bare to the elbow are hanging out the windows now and white faces peer at Percy. Percy shuffles forward, stops and struggles to keep his three bags of groceries from sliding from his grip. Hunched over, he is hugging the bags to his chest. In spite of his effort, the middle bag slips down to rest on his thighs. He crouches to keep it from dropping to the hot pavement but the pull of the earth is winning and the bag slides until arrested between his bent knees. The bus is continuing its arc, creeping up on Percy still in the middle of the intersection, its horn an irritated and insistent blast. The white arms, no longer at rest are gesturing for Percy to move, to get out of the way.
The Chevrolet pulled to a stop at the edge of a crowd before Brown Chapel. Percy’s door opened and he was standing in the roadway. He leaned in the driver’s window but the boys refused the money he offered. They nodded in his direction, the car lurched and they were gone. Percy watched the car disappear around a corner and realized that neither the Colt nor its covering rag had been visible when he had leaned in the window. He knew their struggle for voter rights was a nonviolent action but in this arena of violence and death, he judged these ferrymen riding the desolate black ribbon between Montgomery and Selma to be no fools.
Percy pushed into the crowd and worked his way to the far perimeter. Like a pool of water, the crowd gently opened before him and quickly filled in behind. Stopped by a wooden traffic barrier, Percy confronted, on the other side, another crowd; a crowd of troopers, local police, sheriff’s deputies, and Possymen: a microcosm of white Alabama manhood; middle aged and potbellied, young and wiry, limp spined and slack lipped, all showing an unhurried self-confident aggression. Percy was stunned at the hostility across the barrier. No more than three feet and the flimsy yellow traffic barrier separated them. “What’s the matter, Yankee boy?” The voice came from a small man in a green uniform that said Forest Service. “You, Yankee boy. I mean you, in the suit.” And Percy realized he was the only person on either side of the barrier in a three piece suit. He straightened up, returned the man’s gaze and refused to look away. “You done stepped in it now, huh!” the green shirt said. And the man softly caressed his billy club with the cupped palm of his open hand in an obscene gesture of phallic power. Percy is insulted at this low-life’s attempt at intimidation.
The bus is still inching forward, threatening. Crouched, his overcoat pooled around his feet, Percy manages to work the slipped bag up between the two clutched at his chest. Then, through a small tear in the bottom, three cans of tomato paste, a small plastic bottle of olive oil, and celery stalks sheathed in cellophane slip to the roadway. The cans scatter in different directions, just out of Percy’s reach. He stretches for them and a quart of milk slides between his bent legs to the hot pavement. The arms extended from the bus windows are no longer waving for Percy to get out of the way; they are gesturing and threatening. The faces are no longer white, they are red with angry blood. From the middle of the bus a voice yells, “Get out of the way, you black bastard.” And from closer to the front, “Move it nigger, Jesus Christ!”
Percy couldn’t move. It’s not the wooden barrier that held him. It’s not the crowd pressed at his back. It was a line, an invisible line drawn behind him in the wasted dirt-yard of Brown Chapel. He couldn’t see it. He didn’t look. But he knew it was there. The line ran forever from Percy’s left and from his right. It encompassed Selma, it encompassed Montgomery, it encompassed all of the Deep South; it took in the men across the barrier from him, it took in Brown Chapel, it circumscribed his future and though he didn’t know it yet, Percy will never go back across this line. Anything of his past pulled forward across this line will be changed forever by this future.
This is not the battle Percy would have chosen. But then the struggles that come to us are seldom the ones we would choose. The fact is, Percy had been able to avoid any serious racial conflict for most of his life. His was a privileged youth. A well off childhood in small town New Hampshire, a good college and law student at Boston University, heading now for a partnership with a first rate Boston law firm, an internship with Massachusetts Attorney General Ed Brooke on his resume, it had been smooth sailing for Percy Moneyworth. Let others carry the burden of equality, Percy was too busy going up, impressing his peers, impressing the white world. He would make Partner, then move on to government service, perhaps even in Washington. As part of his career strategy, Percy did make it a point to meet the up and coming Unitarian Minister, James Reeb, just as he had made it a point to meet the Berrigan brothers and William Sloane Coffin. He figured these guys were going to need lawyers for sure and he wanted to be in the queue. Cover all the bases, right? But Percy was taken with Reeb and a friendship developed. They had coffee together, attended poetry readings and argued about Percy’s lack of interest in the voter rights movement. “Jesus, Percy, you are so uptight,” Reeb would say. “Come to Dorchester, get your hands dirty for once. Christ, Percy, you owe it.” But Percy was frying other fish. He wouldn’t be argued or shamed into participation.
It was a senior partner who called Percy into his office to tell him that his friend, the Unitarian minister was dead: clubbed to death just last night. It was right after dinner on a street in Selma, Alabama. Percy was stunned. It was as though he himself had been bludgeoned. The office was air conditioned but a fine, almost imperceptible mist broke out on his forehead. He reached up and with a solitary finger pulled at his stiff white collar. It was difficult to breath. His breath came short and hot and burned his chest. Death at the hands of some bigoted bastard, obscene in its senselessness was all Percy could think, obscene. “There’s going to be a memorial service,” the senior partner said. “You should go…. Do it for your friend?… Could be a daytrip… Might even make some good contacts.”
Percy is reaching now, almost on his knees, his hand searching for the tomato paste; sweat rolling down his face in great streaks. The celery, milk and olive oil have already been loaded in the sac. Others are crossing the intersection and a woman in a business suit, white blouse, gray skirt, gray coat over her arm, briefcase clamped under one elbow retrieves the three cans of tomato paste and places them in Percy’s bag. Percy mumbles a thank you. He doesn’t look up. The woman smiles at Percy, says nothing and is on her way. The bus is quiet, waiting for the new pedestrians to clear its way. Percy shuffles to the curb and mounts the sidewalk. The bus completes its turn and is lost to the traffic on 18th Street. Once again it has become an anonymous carrier of ordinary people; ordinary people who for a moment distinguished themselves by giving in to their baser instincts. Their masks stripped away, they now know who they are.
Waiting in Brown Chapel for the Memorial Service to begin the talk in the congregation was of a march. It was little more than a murmur but word spread like a cold current from pew to pew. We gonna march?… Yea…Waiting for the judge…. Who?….It’s Judge Johnson. We’re gonna march on the Dallas County Courthouse….You say?… They’re waiting for the go ahead from the judge…..And if he says, no?….We go anyhow, my guess….Gonna be trouble, then, another “Bloody Sunday”….Even if he says yes, there’s likely to be trouble.
The light has changed and the sidewalk is crowded now. Percy works his way to the front of the corner building. He stuffs his knit cap into his overcoat pocket and retrieves two folded tote bags. One says King’s Dominion, the other WWF beneath the design of a panda. He transfers the groceries to the two tote bags, takes off his overcoat and sweater and lays them over his arm. In a short sleeved blue shirt with an open collar, he takes up the two tote bags and walks briskly down K Street toward Eddie Fletcher. Eddie sits cross legged on the sidewalk in his usual place at the corner of 17th Street. A small man, dark pockmarked face shining with dampness; he is a fixture at 17th and K. The evening flow of pedestrians pay him little mind except to drop a dollar or a few coins in the McDonalds cup that serves as his offering plate.
“Mister Percy,” he calls. “How are you this evening?”
“Eddie,” Percy says, and stops before the small man. “I’m fine…You? Have you eaten today?”
“Somebody brought me a hamburger and fries for lunch.” Eddie says. “Somebody else gave me a coke… I’ve got enough money to take the bus to the shelter but I’m staying long enough to get enough to do my laundry A Mister Adams offered me a job Something about his garden Says he’ll be by on Monday I need to find a way to get to his place though A job would be good I’m not afraid of work How’m I gonna get to his place though He’s coming back tomorrow No Monday I’ll see him then.” Eddie’s rapid fire speech is a little garbled and Percy misses most of it. He takes a five dollar bill from his pocket and hands it to Eddie. “For the laundry,” he says.”
In Brown Chapel, the voices were clear and ringing. They called for the world to take notice, to stand up and be counted. Percy was seated in the center balcony looking down on the chancel. Except for the windows and the brass organ pipes rising to the ceiling in an arched alcove behind the chancel, everything in the church was cast in warm, graceful curves. The chancel itself, a raised semicircular platform, was fronted by a low sweeping wall of dark wood. Photographers and reporters from around the world filled the space between the chancel and the pews that form a graceful curve mimicking the arc of the chancel. The church was full to overflowing. At the central pulpit, Dr. King spoke about the life of James Reeb. He has said who killed James Reeb, “a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder,” and has turned now to whatkilled James Reeb. Percy was intent as Dr. King went down his list of the what: the indifference of every minister of the gospel, the irrelevancy of a church that only echoes complaints of social evil and disdains leadership, the irresponsibility of every politician who practices demagoguery, the brutality of law enforcement, the timidity of a federal government that cannot protect its citizens, and then, “Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.” If someone had reached across at that moment and slapped Percy Moneyworth he would not have been more shocked. This commanding voice of inspiration and commitment was talking about him. Percy put his hands to his face but it was too late, his mask had been stripped away. Dr. King’s words cut to the quick and Percy saw for the first time what he was. Now he understood the line drawn behind him at the barricade. His past, the indifference he brought to Selma was forever closed to him. Percy looked out over the congregation, at Dr. King who was speaking now about the anonymous young people who will change history, he thought of the two young men who had brought him from the Montgomery airport, he thought of the troopers blocking the road out front, the crowd gathered along the rout of their short march and he knew that there is no retreat from this place.
Then they were at the barrier formed three abreast. And right in front of Percy stood a group of dark suited clergymen linking arms with Dr. King. Quickly, quietly, the yellow barriers opened and the marchers moved forward onto Sylvan Street. Percy, taken up in the flow, watched the wall of troopers, sheriff’s deputies, police, and Possymen open before Dr. King like the Red Sea parting before a startled Moses. It was only a few blocks to the courthouse, but for Percy it was like crossing the great divide.
They marched on the sidewalk, a wall of people gathered on their left threatening and pressing in but held back by an unreasuring police escort and some unseen hand of Providence. Except for soft voices here and there singing we shall overcome, the protesters were silent. A great muttering of feet pushing forward on the pavement was the only noise. Anonymous were the onlookers to Percy, blurred into passing clumps of muted color on a field of white and kaki. Only one woman caught his eye. Standing in the front row, a limp cotton print dress without shape hung from her shoulders. Her hair, black and stringy hung straight and oily. She had a tired slouch to her body as though she had just left off cooking diner in a hot steamy kitchen. A boy and a girl pulled at her arms on either side. The boy, about ten, had three fingers in his mouth. The girl, about six, crowded against her mother’s leg and clutched a ragged stuffed dog to her narrow chest. It was clear that the woman was dirt poor and worked to the bone; clear that the man behind her with a beefy arm on her shoulder used her badly; clear that there was no weekly bouffant-do in her past or her future. This woman followed Percy with a look of hatred he had never felt before. As sharp as scissors, those eyes snipped Percy out of the line of marchers, identified him as an individual and laid on him the blame for everything that was wrong about her life, everything. Her intent was personal and Percy received it personally. Then, as he stared back, her hand went up to her face and two fingers rested lightly on her cheek. Her look of accusation gave way to something else; something of despair appeared in her brown eyes. Theirs is a losing trick, Percy thought. In that despair, he saw a realization that if not for her white skin, she herself would be little more than Selma’s kitchen help. As he looked away from her, in a fleeting moment of prescience, Percy thought to himself, your time is coming woman, be ready, be woman ready, you don’t know it now but this is going to be a very long march.
Percy has turned up Vermont Avenue and is above Thomas Circle. At Luther Place he gives a nod over his left shoulder to Martin Luther, bible in hand, forever on his pedestal preaching his gospel of salvation by grace. At a wrought iron gate, he lets himself into a small yard and onto a brick walk that leads to his front door. The walk is lined with a thick growth of knockout roses wearied by the heat but still in bloom. Percy shifts his tote bags to his left hand and with his right lightly brushes the flowers as he passes. The flowers lean in as though to guide his way. At the top of his steps, he releases the three locks on his great oak door and lets himself into the foyer.
“That you Percy?” calls a fine soprano voice from the kitchen at the end of the hall. Then a face peers around the corner of the doorway.
“Now who else would it be, Clotie?”
Clotie smiles at the sight of the two totes of groceries then frowns at the sweater and overcoat. “You been out messin with those busses again, Percy?”
“Just causing a little inconvenience, Clotie. That’s all. A little inconvenience.”
“Making a nuisance of yourself, I’d say. Bring those things in here…Don’t you think you were enough of a vexation to those white folks while you were working?… You’re hot, come, take some of this tea.”
The overcoat and sweater dropped on a chair in the living room, Percy now deposits the groceries on the kitchen counter. “Nuisance? Well, that’ll do, but I like inconvenience better. Anecessary inconvenience is even better than that. We’ve been a necessary inconvenience to white folks ever since that first slave ship left off for the Americas. The Good Ship Jesus, if you can believe that…1562, wasn’t it?”
“You want this tea?… Look at you, Percy, you’re ringing wet.”
“Necessary, Clotie, cause those Europeans would a died off without us. We plowed, planted, lifted, toted, harvested, built up, tore down, delivered, all in the hot sun,… strong, we were strong while they grew weak and died like flies from the disease. Inconvenient cause we were a vexation. Tried to pretend we were animals, a commodity to be bought and sold, something less than human but we had our ways of standing up.”
“Percy, stop prattling on… we’re due at Justice at eight. Ms. Reno’s secretary called, they’re sending a car.”
“Yes sir, twenty-five years at Justice and I was a vexation, a necessary inconvenience to “the Man” for every minute of those years. Civil rights law, Clotie, that was my specialty. There were some good people for sure, lots of em, but the system, the system was rotten…needed to be wrenched around. Wrenching…that’s always inconvenient for somebody, Clotie. ”
Percy takes the iced tea from the counter. Talking to the kitchen now, “Me…that’s right, an official inconvenience for twenty-five years, and now retired I’ve decided to be a personal inconvenience…expose the bad apples in the barrel as it were…or at least on the bus.” Raising the glass of iced tea, toasting the kitchen, “Percy Moneyworth, personal nuisance.” And after a long drink, “You know, Clotie, getting even, revenge, is like this iced tea here, it’s bound to leave a bitter aftertaste,… but it sure is sweet going down.”