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When I Look Back

Short Story

When I Look Back
Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

'This is an unlawful assembly' Police Chief Harris declared over the loudspeaker of his patrol car. The words fell out of his mouth and landed on the ground with such disdain for the people he was talking to. 'You are to disperse; you are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church.'

Harris barked this order off to the side of the protest, while some six hundred strong stood in defiance as he spoke, and while close to fifty armed policemen dressed in military helmets and gas masks joyfully swung their batons in hand.

From where I stood on the sideline you could tell -- even though you couldn’t see behind the gas mask, that many of them were smiling, waiting for the order to step forward, to put down the protesters and to cause chaos and destruction in the name of law and order.

It was the beginning of spring in 1965, and I was nineteen at the time when I saw these events take place. I watched them from as far as I was allowed to watch, and although I was in favor of the march and the protests, at a distance I blended into the anonymity of the crowd who gathered to jeer and hurl abuse at those who just wanted their voice heard.

They were tired, sick, and tired of not being heard and tensions were high on both sides of the line.

My girlfriend, Jamie, didn’t want me to go down to Selma that day to watch the march. We’d both seen what happened in other incidences across the country. High-pressure hoses that stripped the skin from the flesh in the cold, dogs that had been let loose to attack people and, in some areas, people were set on fire, and in almost every area of the country, somebody had died.

But I would be damned if I wasn’t going to watch the march. This was history in the making, this was justice manifest, change was happening. Not to mention Jamie was marching, and if she was going to be there then I was going to watch out for her.

Her father didn’t want her in the march, he told her ‘If you go out there, you’ll be coming back dead, and I’m not going to be burying my baby girl’

But if Jamie wanted something then Jamie more often than not got what she wanted, much to the annoyance of her parents and to me in later years.

Before the march I asked her if I would be able to walk with her, to keep her company on the long road. She got quiet and shook her head and said, ‘It’s not your fight Harry. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to walk this road by myself’

We left it at that, but as long as I was with her, then her fights were my fights too.

The march started peacefully, and even joyously when they left Brown chapel. Everybody in line seemed to be in high spirits as they began the journey. But when they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that is when the police intercepted them.

They were issued a warning to disperse their illegal gathering. Something that they refused to do. Because the right to gather was just and granted to them by the first amendment to peaceably assemble.

I watched as a man in front denied their request to disperse, and instead dropped to a knee to pray.

Before he had finished the first sentence in his prayer he had been knocked to the ground by the police and had his head broken open by the billy club of an enthusiastic patrolman.

Many people in the front of the protest were pushed to the ground, and those who weren’t pushed down were beaten down until those in the back saw what was happening and tried to flee.

Because the protesters were running, the police fired tear gas into the street and sent the mounted officers on horses in to stop them from running away to accept their fate at the hands of the officers in the street.

I lost sight of Jamie in the heavy acidic fog and ran into the street to try and find her in the chaos.

There were many people on the ground. Some were motionless, some had been arrested others were being beaten brutally under the cover of the thick fog.

The mounted officers were running the length of the street up and down, east to west then back again, scaring the lucky who saw them and trampling the brave who stood their ground.

Jamie was one of the unlucky ones who found herself lost in the mist and was hit in the back of the head by a mounted officer and sent her headfirst to the ground.

I found her on the gutter, sobbing into her hands, her blue dress wet and stained with her blood and the blood of the man next to her who gushed blood from a head wound in the top of his head like a water fountain in beat with his heart.

I grabbed her and ran as fast as I could for as long as I could, and I didn’t look back until I couldn’t smell the sick vinegar scented smoke and the cries of hundreds turned to just hers.

It was dark when I finally got back to Jamie’s house. Her father threw me out of the house and screamed at me for not taking care of her. Jamie tried to tell him that I saved her and that she wouldn't be there without me, but he wasn't hearing it.

I started walking home, and on my way ran into Jamie’s sister Lily who sneaked out of her bedroom window to apologize for her father. She ran up to me and hugged me and thanked me for looking after Jamie and said she knew she was only here because of me and then ran back home.

The next day I came to see Jamie, her father refused to let me in the front door. He told me it was best for everyone and everything if I just left without saying another word. He said that people like me had made their lives awful, they forced them to live in the ghettos and gave them looks in the streets that made them feel worse than dirt on the undersides of your shoes. He told me it was bad enough to live the way they do, and he didn’t want any more undue stress and pain in his daughter’s life by having me in it.

So, I left.

When I left, however, so did Jamie. She had packed a bag while her father screamed at me for the second time in as many days. She said she loved him and kissed him goodbye and left with me.

She knew that things were about to get very rough for both of us, she knew that we were going to face a lot of trials.

But she didn’t care and neither did I.

A week later, a second march was held. Only this time it wasn’t a few hundred who showed up, but a few thousand.

I walked hand in hand with Jamie as we walked down the same street and across the same bridge that only a week ago was the canvas for a painting of suffering and chaos.

Hand in hand we crossed the street where I found her bleeding in the gutter, and she held my hand tight as people stared at us from beyond the national guards’ barricades.

For five days and four nights we walked, and we talked about the good times and the bad times. The good times we have had, and the bad yet to come and more importantly, the bad times we have seen and the good yet to come.

On the final night of camping out after four long days of walking and sleepless nights we rested our tired and sore feet and laid on the side of the road in the mud and the dirt. A man approached us and sat next to our fire and talked with us for a short while.

He introduced himself, although he didn’t need to his reputation preceded him. He said to us, 'Things will get better, as they always do. The good days will come, maybe not all at once, but when they do appreciate them. Because the dark days will come as well, and you will need the good days to look back on and smile. But for now, don’t think of the bad days, because today is a good day'

The following day when we reached Montgomery and our long and wearisome journey came to an end. We sat on a park bench on the other side of the capitol building while the same man who sat down and shared our campfire the night before stood in front of the entire crowd of those who marched the five-day journey to be there and told us all that one day soon we need not make the travels like this, that one day the people of the country who see prejudice when they look at their fellow man will one day be no more, and when someone asked him how long it would take he answered simply, 'How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice'

I think back on the good old days from time to time and I smile. I smile because days today are bad, not quite as bad as back then, but they feel pretty bad and they only feel like they are getting worse.

But I will continue smiling, because I know the better days will come again.

Yesterday was a good day but today is not. But so long as your voice is heard by those in charge, then tomorrow will bring forth change and greatness with it.

activism
B. James Hancock
B. James Hancock
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