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Soda Springs: Chapter 5

Priscilla was gone Monday when Rick crawled out of bed. After coffee and toast, Charlie led him into the garage to a four-foot high pile of the Birmingham News. "Vacation's over. We've gotta bring ourselves up to date."

For weeks, the front pages reported the election campaign blow by nasty blow. On election day, a reform candidate ousted entrenched police commissioner Bull Connor. But Connor and his council refused to vacate their offices. City hall housed competing governments, with no resolution in sight. The paper said nothing of Negro demonstrations.

Birmingham's Negro marches had made the New York Times, though, and Rick knew the basic story before he left Ithaca: a week of sit-ins and marches, Negro demands galore. On April 5, the day Rick and Charlie arrived, the Birmingham News finally broke its silence with two inside-page stories: "10 more Negroes arrested"; "King accused of breaking up race progress." Priscilla was right. The Negroes lobbed their demands into a bitter political brawl.

By noon, Rick was bleary-eyed. "Let's take a break. Try one of those hot-in-the-news lunch counters."

"All greasy spoons. Can't imagine why they're so eager to eat there."

"It's about symbolism, not fine dining. Might be some photos in it."

"Yeah, but you gotta be objective, not just support your Northern bias."

"Whoa, you sound like your mom."

"What the hell's that mean? That I'm racist? Mom's right, smartass. King and Abernathy are outsiders. They cruise in and stir the pot."

"What pot? The one where whites rise to the top? We're talking about equal rights."

"Spare me the sermon. I get enough liberal bullshit in Ithaca -- everyone painting Birmingham a damn Klan breeding ground. Don't need it from you," Charlie said.

"Cut the crap. I'm not out to prove anything. Just the facts, ma'am."

"Oh yeah? When has the Sun ever defended the South? That's not the Cornell party line."

Charlie's drawl lengthened with each word. His eyes grew distant, as if he had slipped into the sepia family portrait hanging over the fireplace. Rick remembered him laboring their freshman year to mask anything that pegged him to the South -- as blatant as Rick's own recasting himself from Soda Springs hick into Ivy League prep. Now, the McPherson house itself took on a mind-set Rick sensed he couldn't understand, not in a week. He had to tread lightly, not only with Birmingham's angry whites, but with his hypersensitive hosts.

Rick put up his hands in surrender. "Sorry. No offense meant."

Charlie looked ready to pounce. "Something else: what Mom said about Gladys is true. Mom may not be keen on Negroes, but she's more tolerant than she comes across. Dad, too. He knows a ton of them from his days as a beat cop. A man's not a saint just because he's a Negro."

They drove downtown in silence. They found the streets quiet, bought hamburgers, spent the afternoon in the garage.

Tuesday, they saw a tiny band of Negroes picketing Loveman's Department Store, signs shouting, "Don't shop where you can't eat"; "Don't buy segregation." College kids, Rick guessed, guys in coats and ties, girls in spring dresses. Separate clusters of Negroes and whites milled about nearby, more curious onlookers than partisans. No taunting, no chants or strike songs, no police dogs. Rick had seen more bad blood at the annual Cornell-Harvard hockey game. Charlie snapped photos while Rick sketched the scene in his reporter's notebook.

A stone-faced Negro darted up. "We meetin' tonight at Sixteenth Street Baptist. You want to write the whole truth, you come on down. Reverend King gone preach." He scuttled back among the slow-moving picketers.

That afternoon, after Rick tried to sleep off the stone-heavy meatloaf from a café whose name he vowed to forget, he wandered out of the bedroom and found Charlie sprawled on the sofa, phone in hand, its long black cord clothesline-taut from the kitchen wall. Charlie covered the receiver with his hand. "Grab a beer and wait on the porch. Read a novel . . . or write one. I'll be out as soon as I can." His voice dropped to a coo.

Rick reread the Birmingham News. Page one blared a new national crisis: Wheeling Steel raises its prices; President Kennedy tries to jawbone them into a rollback. So, big business gouges the public. What's new? Rick scoured every page, found a two-inch civil rights story buried inside: twenty-six Negroes arrested.

Finally, Charlie sauntered out. "Good news and bad. My old friend Deb's home with her roommate, an Ole Miss cheerleader. And best of all, the roomie's an alley cat in heat. We're on for Days of Wine and Roses. The bad news? We gotta hang loose 'til tomorrow night. Plus, I pitched you as a mountain man, packing a load big as Old Faithful -- so don't be creamin' your jeans wishing for it; you gotta produce this time."

Charlie loved to brandish his conquests like a foil, try to goad Rick into admitting he had never done it, as if that were some heinous perversion. Rick had to trump Charlie to avoid the guy's merciless razzing. "No sweat. Today. Tomorrow. Twice a day. I'm loaded and primed."

"Yeah, right. Let's drink to fond dreams . . . or wet ones. I'll get us a beer," Charlie said.

He returned with two bottles of Schlitz.

"About tonight . . . since you can't deliver the babes, what say we interview King and Abernathy," Rick said. "That guy from the picket line this morning, he invited us to --"

"Jesus, farm boy, Sixteenth Street Baptist is a Negro hangout. As in o-f-f-l-i-m-i-t-s. Go look in the mirror. We're white. You're under house arrest. Have a six-pack. Conk out on the floor. Maybe it will knock some sense into your head."

"Why not? That Negro guy invited us."

"Dammit, he's from Miles College -- a Negro school. Another outsider."

"So? We'll never get an inside scoop if we don't try. What say we ask at the door? If they throw us out, we spend the night hustling southern belles."

"Listen up. I live here. You'll be gone in a week. No one knows you, or gives a shit."

"That's the point. You're a local. You're making sure it's an honest story, not Northern propaganda."

Charlie fetched two more beers. "This could cost me my family name, but if we can talk our way in, and if King and Abernathy are there, I'll take some shots. But you cause another damn riot, and I'll personally throw you and your stuff into the street. Then, when we get back to Ithaca, one of us will be moving out. I'm serious."

Charlie insisted Rick park near United Methodist, then hoof it to Kelly Ingram Park rather than risk leaving the car in Negro Birmingham. They saw only Negroes migrating toward the church, no other whites.

"It's not too late for common sense. I could round up some willing women," Charlie said.

Rick wanted to turn back. He didn't know the place; Charlie did. But Rick did know that conquering his fears opened new doors. In ninth grade, he and his buddies rigged up a shaky two-by-four catwalk over the Farmers' Union canal behind the school. Rick dared it first, scampering over the torrent like Batman himself. That stunt got him elected class president: the guys saw only that he did it, not his primeval fear that he would fall and be swept to his death. "Let's give it a shot. We stay alert, take off if we sense trouble."

At the corner, a bevy of teenage Negro girls blocked their way. Rick screwed up his courage. "Excuse me, is this where Dr. King's speaking?"

One girl giggled. Another glared. "You in the wrong place, mister. This a Negro church." She looked like a high school kid. Classy, though. Wavy bouffant. Print dress with a high neck.

"Whites not allowed, is that it?"

"We want rights for all, not just Negroes," an older girl said. "Y'all welcome."

Charlie had stepped back and was snapping pictures. The first girl pushed her hand at the camera. "No one said it be okay to take pictures, mister. You a cop?"

Charlie handed her a business card: "Charles H.M. McPherson, Fashion Photographer."

Rick stifled a grin. The first time he saw Charlie's card, he made fun of the two middle initials. Charlie's answer: "Sounds European. Women dig that." At Cornell, the card lured in dozens of campus beauties. He built a portfolio that would do Playboy proud.

"It say New York." The girl showed it to her friends.

"Yeah, but I grew up here. Graduated Ramsay High. Southern women are tops."

"Ouee, Sasha, this white boy got some line," the older girl said.

"No line. That's plain fact," Charlie said. "You a professional model?"

The girl called Sasha laughed. "Oh, yes, sir. I am Parker High's 'Lizbeth Taylor."

"Better than Liz, I'd say. Let's see a heart-stopping smile." She stuck out her tongue. "Okay, Liz, I'm your boyfriend. I asked you to the prom. Show me some promise."

"You no Isaiah, honey. No way." Her friends laughed, but she gave a sultry look, and Charlie snapped a roll of thirty-six of Sasha and her friends. "I'll send you copies."

"Oh, yes sir, I believe that," Sasha said. "And segregation be history by May Day."

Sixteenth Street Baptist was no Birmingham United Methodist. Even so, it was twice as big as the church in Soda Springs, and its oaken woodwork burnished from use. A six-row-deep balcony curved above three sides of the sanctuary, and when no one challenged them, Rick and Charlie made their way upstairs into first row seats. The church quickly filled. Men lined the walls behind them and below. Rick expected hushed silence, but people jabbered as if swarming into a pep rally. He felt as if he had crashed the inner sanctum of some rowdy club in a foreign land.

A troop of Negro men in suits strode into the sanctuary, the man in front charging ahead like Cassius Clay en route to the ring: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as serious as he looked on TV, but huskier. One of King's entourage marched to the pulpit. "Shuttlesworth," Charlie whispered. "Used to be pastor at this church."

Shuttlesworth surveyed the crowd. "I just came from my new vacation home, Birmingham city jail. And I got one thing to report . . . ain't no faces there as handsome as what I see in this sanctuary. No Lord, not nearly so handsome." Chuckles grew to applause, shouts of amen. Charlie propped his elbow on his thigh to steady the long lens, choreographing his shots with Shuttlesworth's voice, snapping the shutter at bursts of applause, and without a flash.

Another speaker took the pulpit. "Y'all know this man, heard him with Duke Ellington. Now, his golden voice gonna praise the Lord. Brothers and sisters, the great Al Hibbler."

Rick recognized Hibbler's deep baritone at the first note, but he didn't realize the singer was blind. In junior high, Rick knew his "Unchained Melody" by heart: "Oh, my love, my darling, I've hungered for your touch . . ." The summer after eighth grade he sang it to Gloria Perkins from Denver after the closing bonfire at church camp. She said it was the sweetest thing a guy had ever done, then French kissed him. She had paraded innocence all week, but in the shadow of the old blue spruce behind the rec hall, she let him burrow his hand into her panties. Third base, his first time. Camp ended the next day, and Rick never saw her again. He sighed, and felt Charlie elbow his ribs. Hibbler was calling for volunteers to join tomorrow's picket lines. Charlie growled, "Don't you dare."

Dr. King took the pulpit, pleaded for more picketers. No hands went up. King asked again. None. "We should talk to that new mayor, not spit in his eye," the man next to Rick grumbled. Here was reality, a movement divided within itself.

King spurred his audience into a frenzy of amens. The mighty river of racism littered the Negroes' path toward freedom with craggy boulders rent from a mountainside of injustice. Yet, only peaceful protest and nonviolence would lead to the promised land. "I had a dream tonight," he boomed, "a dream of little Negro boys and girls walking to school with little white boys and girls, playing in the parks together and swimming together." When he stepped from the pulpit, Abernathy took his place.

Rick concentrated on the dark faces surrounding him. No Negroes lived in Soda Springs, not one, and Cornell had only a handful. Sunday was the first time in his life he had been among Negroes. He studied their differences. Skin tone. Facial features. Hair style. Skinny, fat. Tall and short. Before, they had been a faceless mass on TV, not individual men and women. He'd been blind -- or apathetic. He felt uncomfortably hot: if they heard his thoughts, they'd denounce him as a racist. He scrunched into his seat.

Rev. Abernathy was praying now. Rick hadn't heard a word he'd said, and he silently prayed for the guy to finish quickly. He had to go the restroom, and soon.

The man beside Rick punctured the air with his fist, shouted amen. Around him, people were up and moving toward the stairs.

"Abernathy's good. I hope you got it word for word," Charlie said.

Rick hurried Charlie downstairs into the crush of people. This time, Rick noticed smiles and nods. Charlie took off after Sasha Johnson. Rick had to find a restroom. "Catch you outside," he called. Charlie didn't respond; he had his sights on the girl.

Downstairs, a white-haired Negro man was stacking folding chairs.

"Excuse me, sir, where's the restroom?" No answer. Rick cupped his crotch. "Restroom."

"This a Negro church," the man said.

"I gather this is your first time in Alabama," a familiar voice behind Rick said.

Rick turned, found himself face to face with Martin Luther King. King was Rick's height, not ten feet tall at all. Rick had never met a celebrity. "I . . . I liked your talk."

"You heard some mighty fine preaching tonight. However, that ignores my question. No white Southerner would expect to use the restroom in a Negro church."

Rick winced. Charlie had pointed out the three restrooms at a gas station: Ladies. Men. Colored. It never occurred to him segregation might cut both ways. "I'm from Colorado."

"Ah, the snow-capped Rockies. White people are indeed welcome to march with us, but you will have to excuse me. Nature does call preachers as well as volunteers."

Rick blurted, "I have a copy of Stride Toward Freedom in the car. Would you autograph it for me?"

"Certainly, but at the moment . . ." King started past.

Rick was doing a little dance himself, but he was alone with America's Gandhi. "To be honest, I bought it for 'Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.' It helped me articulate my case as a C.O."

King hesitated. "A conscientious objector? You must be popular at home. In Colorado."

"My dad as good as disowned me. My draft board thinks I'm nuts."

"You get the book while I do my business." King brushed past into a hallway.

Rick knew he could never make it to the car and back. He followed King and gently tried the men's room door. Locked. He looked around, saw no one, darted into the women's restroom and bolted the door.

Read on: Jump to Chapter 6

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