Reedsy selected this story for their blog based on a prompt about a person who had participated in a historical event. I created Longjohn Whitaker who marched across the bridge in Selma, AL on his way to Montgomery in to claim his rights as a citizen of this country. Now decades later, a writer is listening to his story of the day in 1965 when he joined the march with Dr. King to Montgomery.
Longjohn Whitaker: Local Legend
“Who is that guy?” I pointed to an old man sitting at the counter of Gooseberry Cafe sipping black coffee. His skin was the color of rich mocha, his voice was full of resonance, deep and rich with the essence of a life well-lived. There was an aura that told me that he was a man I needed to get to know. I had been on a quest to find human stories that were worth telling.
“Longjohn Whitaker.” The man next to me answered as he put some grits on his spook.
“Seems like someone carved his face out of stone.” I chuckled, noting his snow white hair and neatly trimmed beard of the same color.
“Now don’t be going poking fun at him.” The man said as he swallowed his grits.
“He’s kind of a legend around here.” The man on the other side of me remarked. With his gray hair and thick glasses, he appeared to be the same age as Longjohn. “Take a walk across that bridge sometime and you’ll hear the hymns of some of the ghosts still being sung.”
“He was part of it.” The man patted his stomach and pushed his empty bowl to the edge of the counter where a waitress put it into a tray.
“So what you’re telling me is he is a hometown legend?” I sipped my coffee.
“Yessir. Old Longjohn is a legend here in Selma.” The waitress put a plate in front of the old man sitting next to me.
“Is he friendly?” I asked.
“Depends. If you show respect, he might if not you best be moving on.” The man who ate the bowl of grits chuckled, “Oh by the way, my name is Chet.”
“Canton.” We shook hands, “I am a writer and I am just finding stories of interest to put in my blog.”
“Maybe one day I’ll hear it.” Chet sniffed.
“Hope you do.” I smiled.
“Bertha, some ketchup, please.” The old man signaled the waitress.
“”Oh Barney, you don’t need ketchup on your eggs.” She laughed as she brought him a bottle of ketchup and sure enough, he poured it all over his eggs and hash browns.
I got up and walked toward Longjohn. When I got close I asked, “Are you Longjohn Whitaker?”
He studied me closely before speaking, “Who wants to know?”
“Canton Sturdivant.” I put my card next to him. He looked at it before picking it up.
“You a writer?” He asked as he picked up my card.
“All my life.” I nodded proudly.
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head. This was not the answer I had expected. “Suppose you want to talk about my march across that bridge out there with Dr. King.”
“That would be a good starting point.” I smiled.
“Well Mr. Sturdivant that was a long time ago.” He looked at me through his one open eye.
“Yes it was.” I agreed.
“That’s all people wanna know. Less than an hour we marched across that bridge. Of course we had lots of hateful words thrown at us. Police tried to stop us. They used dogs and firehoses, but on that day we would not be stopped.” His voice was steady with a cadence that was smooth and even. At the time none of us knew the impact of what we had done, but it seemed to resonate throughout the country. If I had my way, we’d walk across that bridge every day and remind folks of what we did back then.”
I got out my pad, because I knew his story would be worth recording. What I got was a heck of a lot more than I had anticipated.
My mama was white and my father was blacker than the ace of spades with a soul to match said Sheriff Posey who was about as bigotted as a soul had a right to be. My name was Isaiah Longjonh Whitaker, the Longjohn got attached to me when I began to wear long underwear, no matter the weather or what was going on outside his clapboard shack. I grew up during the peak of Jim Crow when things were separate but equal. A lot of folks would see the light color of my skin and wonder why I didn’t try to pass, but my facial features were distinctively Negro, so my chances of passing were narrowed quite a bit. Folks who could pass were afforded a lot more privilege than the colored people of Selma, Alabama during the early 1960’s.
“Hey mama.” I swung through their small front room giving my mother Ella Louise a kiss on top of her graying hair as I passed through carrying a basketball, my prized possession.
“They killed him.” She wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Who, mama?” I shrugged as in the film he did not seem that much different from some of the white folks who were in charge of things in Selma.
“That young man from Massachusetts. President Kennedy.” She answered in a shallow voice.
I was too young to understand why that was such a big deal with her, but as he was to find out the ramifications would run through the small community like an electric shock with a lot of the white folks silently rejoicing that he was now gone and a real man sat in the Oval Office. All of the progress made by the NAACP of which his father was a member seemed to evaporate.
One night, when I started high school, a parked police car was bombed sending up a bright light that could be seen like a beacon all over town.
“Damn them coloreds.” Sheriff Posey cussed when he ran into the parking lot to see one of his cruisers ablaze.
Without warrant, the next morning three officers showed up to arrest Devon Whitaker, my father since he had been quoted in the local newspaper that the only way to get the attention of law enforcement was to blow something up. Malcolm X was influencing some of the rank and file of the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and my father had become known as a malcontent.
Junior Owens, my best friend in school, was a proponent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who preached for a more peaceful solution than Brother Malcolm. My father believed that peace was fine, but direct action was more effective. Junior was stopped one night on a routine traffic stop and his perceived disrespect was severely punished as he showed up with both eyes swollen shut in school a few days later.
“They done hit me with their nightsticks even though I begged them to stop.” He began to shed tears from his swollen eyes.
“What we do about this?” I asked as he began to tremble.
“What can we do?” He looked off in another direction.
“We can’t let them do this to us.” I insisted.
“What we gonna do? They ain’t gonna stop on account we tell them to.” Junior bowed his head. “Maybe Malcolm be right. Burn their cities. Meet violence with violence.”
“You can’t believe that.” I put my hand on his, it was shaking with rage.
We decided to go to the meeting. I told my mama, I wanted to go play basketball with some friends and even took my basketball with me when I left with Junior. The evening inside the meeting hall at the church was electric as witnesses talked about different things occurring to keep the Negro in his place even through Jim Crow had been declared unlawful. Tradition runs deeper in the south than any other real or imagined force, but it was time to break the chains of tradition.
The protest rally on Saturday was a gathering of some of the members singing “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” While foot traffic was light, a few of the people stopped and listened to the soulful gospel sung on the steps of the courthouse. The police showed up within the hour, but because we were conducting ourselves in an orderly manner, they just formed a parameter some holding the leashes of the K-9s. It’s when someone threw a rock that the trouble started. No one could knew exactly who threw the rock, but within an hour the riot had started. With Montgomery to the east, the news of our unrest reached the ears of those leading the civil rights movement. With Lydon Johnson in the White House, there was a lot of doubt if anything from that far up would happen since he was a loyal son of Texas and his distrust of Dr. King was legend as he had J. Edgar Hoover’s men watching the good doctor’s every move. With the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the movement seemed to kick into high gear.
When Junior and I walked the halls of our school, students and teachers alike came up to ask us questions. We both felt like big shots all of a sudden especially when Dr. King decided to organize a march in Selma. Nothing like that had ever happened here before.
“Bunch of uppity coloreds.” Posey growled. “That coon is just coming here to stir up some trouble. We got things settled here. Why the hell has he decided Selma?”
“We will be ready. Get the governor to call in the national guard.” Jake Pressley nodded.
“If they want trouble, we’ll give them all they can handle.” Posey remarked.
We formed the group early on the morning of March 7, 1965 and as Junior and I stood there we could not believe the number of marchers that joined us. Heck, there were more marchers than there were folks living in Selma. Dr. King made a speech and then we began our march. We knew what was waiting for us, dogs and firehoses. Tear gas began to rain down on us and some of the folks started to scatter. I lost Junior in the mayhem, but I saw one woman on the ground being beat by two patrolmen with night sticks. She had blood running from her hair and she begged for them to stop, but they didn’t until she was silent. One young man had his arm in the jaws of one of the dogs. It was frightening to see what was taking place, but Dr. King just kept walking through it all until he was over the bridge.
“Junior!” I called out. No answer.
One of Posey’s men took a swing at me with his club, but I managed to duck away. When he recoiled and attempted to take another swing at me, I grabbed his arm.
He yelled at me using that word that made me angry. They used that word on my father when they took him. I hit him. I hit him hard. He fell and did not get up and blood trickled from the side of his mouth. I could not believe I had done something they could have lynched me for. I ran away before someone could point a finger at me.
Water fell on me like a hard rain. Some of the protesters were being beaten back with fire hoses. The water pressure from one of those things could make you lose your footing which was happening. Once on the ground, some of the police came in swinging their clubs.
I got to the bridge. It had been here longer than me and it never seemed that significant, just another bridge over a river. How many times had I crossed it, but this time my crossing meant something. People stood there shouting words of hate, waving their fists or middle fingers at us, but I did not look at them, I just kept walking. Dr. King was close enough that I could almost reach out and touch him. Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson were flanking him. Sirens were sounding. No matter what, I was going to get across that bridge and continue. I was feeling the loss of Junior, but I knew I had a deeper purpose.
I had never been to Montgomery, but that’s where these folks were headed. I did not tell mama I was going, but I’m sure somehow she had guessed what I was up to.
I could hear helicopters hovering overhead and I knew there were television cameras on board taking pictures of us marching from the sky. As we left the city, I could see that Sheriff Posey had no intention of following us all the way to the state capital. Already the news was following him and with what was going on surrounding the movement, he had become the masthead of this push that had begun small as a woman sitting on a bus and now had flourished into something that even Sheriff Posey could not stop.
When I got home days later, mama greeted me with the news that my father had been beat to death in the state prison. We drove to Montgomery where I had been just a couple weeks before to take my daddy’s body home to be laid in peace at the Colored cemetery. At his service, I looked over and saw Junior who was sitting in a wheelchair.
“What happened?” I asked as I squatted down next to him.
“I started to run when they turned on the fire hoses. I fell down and this car ran over me.” He spoke slowly so I could feel every bit of his pain as he recalled the event. “I heard you walked with Dr. King to Montgomery.”
“I did.” I felt my heart sink knowing that we would no longer be able to play basketball together at the park.
No long after that, Junior got ahold of his father’s .45 pistol, put the metal barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Whenever I go to see daddy’s grave, I make sure I pass by his, too.
Dr. King warned there would be a lot of victims in this crusade for our civil rights, but I just did not consider it at the time. In the year I would graduate from high school, on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had never considered he would be one of the victims of his own movement.
“They shot him, mama.” I sank into the couch when I saw the grainy images run across my television screen.
“Who? Who did they shoot?” She asked from the kitchen.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” I was nearly in tears.
“Oh my.” She came in from the kitchen wearing her apron with her hand on her mouth. She put her arm around me and let me cry into her shoulder, but what made it worse was she would never understand the grief I was feeling.
I had this funny feeling when we reached Montgomery, everything we fought for, every dream he had, would be fulfilled as soon as we got there. Governor George Wallace, on the other hand, had other ideas in the matter as he openly defied President Johnson’s vision of the Great Society.
He sat there for a while on the bench in the park in the middle of town. He ran his hand over his white beard and smiled, “How naïve I was back then. I never knew of all life’s pain, exclusion would be the one that would hurt me the most.”
A squirrel ran by our feet and up an oak tree where his home was. His eyes followed the furry little creature and he smiled to watch him. There were so many things I never took much notice of in a world that was constantly in motion.
“Sometimes I say to God that maybe I’d have been better off being a squirrel and I wouldn’t have to worry about the color of my skin.” He chuckles and closes his eyes, “Mama passed away a couple of years ago. She was put in hospice. They would not let me in at first, because they could not believe I was her son. Even after all of that, they would not let me see her until I proved I was her boy.”
“That must have been tough.” I added thoughtfully.
“No, the toughest part is having to keep inviting yourself to the banquet and refuse to be excluded from the feast even if no one wants you there. Even after all of we went through, there are people who will not let us join the feast.” His eyes focused on a horizon that I would never be able to see.