Authors: Susan Carol McCarthy
Table of Contents
For Dad, Mother and Gam.
And for all the others whose
time in the fire was Florida
in the early ’50s.
To this day, my family is in disagreement as to precisely when the
nightmare began. For me, it was the morning Daddy and Luther
discovered Marvin, beaten, shot, and dying, in the Klan’s stomping
grounds off Round Lake Road. My brother Ren disagrees. He
points to the small cluster of scars that begin just outside his left eye
and trail horizontally across his temple to the top of his ear. Ren
claims it started when the men in white robes took the unprecedented
step of shooting at two white children. Others say it was when Mr.
Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP and Mr. Hoover’s FBI came to
—Mother and Daddy shake their heads. In their minds,
the real beginning was much earlier. . . .
LAY THAT TRUMPET IN OUR HANDS
“In this deceptively simple tale of a girl’s maturity
during evil times, McCarthy shows us something more:
a community banding together under fire, and a family
willing to shoulder a terrible responsibility.
Trumpet in Our Hands
is, in microcosm, what the
civil rights movement meant—and means—to all
the men, women, and children involved.”
—Laurie R. King, author of
“Evocative . . . The sincerity of her tale and its simple telling
would make the book as interesting to young adult readers as
it will be to those who remember or want to learn about the
tangled moral questions of the ’50s.”
“Poignant and beautifully written.”
“It’s the rare book that can move me emotionally,
impress me with its literary quality, and fill my heart
with the hope of human trust, bravery, and dignity.
That Trumpet in Our Hands
is such a book. . . . I can
virtually guarantee you won’t be disappointed.”
And Praise for
“Beautifully written . . . A sharply drawn picture of a
struggle for justice against a corrupt system. McCarthy’s
characters are fascinatingly complex. . . .She proves herself
again at home with the times, the landscape and, most im-
portant, the necessary struggle for justice in an unjust era.”
“A vivid portrait of mid-century corruption, and of some
brave enough to risk everything for justice.”
“Insightful [and] fervant . . . Flawless dialogue, warm
characters and compassionate wit all service a moving
story about the powers of love and justice.”
Most of the Southern Belle states chose their widest, wildest rivers and seduced them into hardworking husbandry. In Big Delta marriages that still prosper, Mississippi claimed her namesake, Alabama her Mobile, and Georgia her Savannah. But Florida—skinny, flat-chested baby sister to the Belles—had slimmer prospects. Rejecting old Suwannee, Florida chose the Orange Blossom Trail, not a river at all but a slick 600-mile highway that knew how to dance.
The Orange Blossom Trail, also called Route 441, snake-charmed poor Florida, from her redheaded Georgia border through the skinny, sink-holed waist of the state to the wild abandon of her southern tip. While romancing her with dreamy visions of life in paradise, the Trail openly auctioned Florida’s best beaches to the highest Yankee bidders. Later on, in a scandalous orgy of profit-taking, her lesser parts were tendered, cheaply, placing liberal Northerners, Orthodox Jews and devout Catholics cheek-by-jowl amongst the grandchildren of Confederate aristocrats, raging Crackers, and dirt-poor blacks who sought work wherever they could. “It’s the social equivalent of a Molotov cocktail,” my father liked to say.
In the spring of 1951, that cocktail combusted, blowing the roof off our state for nine nightmarish months. What happened is historical fact, and, now that the State Attorney has unsealed the Grand Jury documents, public record:
Florida’s Klansmen, who for twenty years had confined their activities to assault and battery of adulterers and the occasional cross-burning, turned murderous. In March of 1951 they grabbed, stabbed and shot nineteen-year-old Negro citrus picker Marvin Cully. Then, in a high-speed chase down the Trail to the Orlando airport, they attempted to abduct N.A.A.C.P. Attorney Thurgood Marshall (future Supreme Court Justice Marshall). Later, with little attention and no intervention from law enforcement, Klansmen blew the hell out of the Carver Village Housing Project for Negroes with two 100-pound bundles of dynamite, set off blasts at the Coral Gables Jewish Center, the Hebrew School, and several Catholic churches. The horror seemed endless until finally the brutal double murder, by dynamite, on Christmas night got the attention of President Harry Truman, vacationing in Key West.
To this day, my family is in disagreement as to precisely when the nightmare began. For me, it was the morning Daddy and Luther discovered Marvin, beaten, shot and dying in the Klan’s stomping grounds off Round Lake Road. My brother Ren disagrees. He points to the small cluster of scars that begin just a hair outside his left eye and trail horizontally across his temple to the top of his ear. Ren claims it started when the men in white robes took the unprecedented step of shooting at two white children. Mother and Daddy shake their heads. In their minds, the real beginning was much earlier when, as brash young newlyweds on a Florida honeymoon, they let a fast-talking agent entice them into twenty-seven acres of “prime grove land in the charming town of Mayflower.”
It was afterwards that our family, the only Northerners left by then, and our circle of secret friends contrived the showdown between Mr. Hoover’s F.B.I. and the central Florida K.K.K. When it all began and why remains debatable. So much lies buried with Marvin and the others and with their white-robed killers. In the end, all we have, all we can take refuge in, is
, for each of us, one thing led to quite another.
Luther’s on the back porch knocking on the door. Inside my co-coon of bedcovers, first thoughts, like moths, flutter. Temperature’s dropped and the men have come to work the smudge pots. I see them in my mind, dark, bundled bodies shuffling, soft calls anticipating the all-night battle against a freeze, gloved hands passing shiny thermoses filled with fresh, hot coffee, maybe something stronger. No, no, the dusky wings whisper: winter’s gone, the trees long into bloom, new fruit already the size of sweet peas. I wake with a start.
Luther doing here, now?
There it is again, his distinctive
. Across the hall, Mother and Daddy’s voices arc in surprise, recognition, then concern. Daddy’s feet hit the floor. I hear him yank on pants, belt buckle jangling, jerk open their door, and stride to the back. In my room Buddy’s tags jingle at the window, nose pressed against the screen, tail gently slapping wood. I slip down beside him as, suddenly, the porch light slants across the tangerine tree outside my window. A breeze carries the scent of blossoms and the sound of voices into my room.
“Good Lord, Luther, what is it?” Daddy asks.
“It’s Marvin, Mist’Warren. He ain’t come home. Armetta’s about worried herself to
. The boy went out ’round eight, telling his mamma he’d be back ’fore midnight. Ah been looking for him since one. Run into Jimmy Lee just now, swears he saw Klanners cruising the Trail where Marvin’s s’posed to be.”
“The Klan? Where on the Trail?”
“Joe’s Jook, up to Wellwood. Marvin’s sweet on one of them girls up there.”
“Marvin had any run-ins with the Klan?”
“Nawser, but the girl say he left ’round ’leven.”
“What do you think?”
“Ah’m hoping we could check on Mistuh Myer’s Valencia grove this morning, drive slow-like past Round Lake, take a look.”
“Come on in. I need to get my shoes on and some coffee.”
Opening my door, I see Mother, a blur of dark curls and blue robe, flash through the hall and into the dining room. Buddy and I trail her into the kitchen.
Luther’s at the table, chair nearest the door, staring down into the frayed innards of his field cap. Daddy’s at the stove fumbling with the coffeepot. Mother moves to help him. Touching her elbow in thanks, he turns to retrieve his work boots from the porch.
“Sorry to bother you, MizLizbeth,” Luther says to Mother’s back. “Hey, Roo,” he says to me, abbreviating his usual greeting. Everything about him, normally cola-colored, is gray-cast: his eyes glow darkly in ashy nests of wrinkles; a frost of unshaved stubble smudges his chin; his clothes, usually pressed and proper, hang loose and rumpled. Buddy pads over to him, tail wig-wagging, and rests his muzzle on Luther’s knee.
“Luther and I need to take a drive, honey,” Daddy says low-voiced to Mother. “Marvin’s missing and it’s cruise night on the Trail.”
. . .” Her eyes zigzag between the two men.
“Thought we’d check on Myer’s Valencias, swing by Round Lake,” Daddy says calmly, talking code in front of me.
“Can I go?” I ask.
“ReesaRoo, we don’t know what’s out there.” Daddy lifts a booted foot onto the side bench, tying leather laces. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to be watching for the DeSoto? She’s due in today and your mother says her room’s not ready.”
Thrust and parry, Daddy’s a master at it.
“Your mamma comin’ in today?” Luther asks, his smile showing a glint of the 24-karat canine Marvin calls his “golden dog.”
“Yep, we get her for Easter this year,” Daddy replies, tying the other boot.
thin’, Miz Doto is. And Ah
“Fits her perfectly, doesn’t it?” Daddy says, shrugging into his jacket.
My grandmother’s DeLuxe, drive-without-shifting, custom DeSoto coupe is the source of our family’s nickname for her. Once, when I was two or three, I answered my parents’ request to “watch for the DeSoto” with an eager “Here comes Doto!” and the name stuck.
“Coffee’s ready, sugar’s on the table.” Mother lays spoons and two steaming mugs in front of them. “Get you anything else?”
Luther’s eyes thank Mother for her kindness, then dart to Daddy’s.
“I think we’d best get going, honey,” Daddy answers, not sitting, swigging coffee deeply.
Luther stands, visibly relieved, and ducks out the door, tossing “See y’all later” over his shoulder.
Daddy throws his good arm around Mother and pulls her to the barrel of his chest. “Warren, take Buddy with you,” I hear her urge in a whisper.
“Don’t worry, Lizbeth,” he replies with a kiss. “Bye, Roo, don’t forget the hospital corners on Doto’s bed. Here, boy!” As the shepherd jingles after him, I see Mother check the time on the kitchen clock.
on Round Lake?” I want to know.
“Reesa,” she sighs, clearly unsure how much she wants to tell, “there’s been talk about a lemon grove, one of Mr. Casselton’s, but . . .”
. In our county, where local boosters declare citrus is king, Emmett Casselton, owner of the sprawling Casbah Groves, considers himself the area’s crown prince. In our house, where the only thing worse than an “arrogant son of a bitch” is an “ignorant damn Cracker,” Emmett Casselton is both.
“You mean the Klan’s taken Marvin to the Casbah?” My voice, my whole throat quivers on the phrase favored by local biddies, black and white, to reel in wayward children . . . “You better be good,” they warn, “or the Klan’ll take you to the Casbah!” I never understood it, never connected it to Emmett Casselton’s vast acreage—until now.
“I don’t know, Reesa. I doubt it. I
know, however,” Mother says, retreating behind her Poker Face, “in the time it’ll take me to fix breakfast, you can finish your grandmother’s bed. Go on now. I’ll call you when it’s ready.” Gentle hands turn me toward the door.
The window at the top of the stairwell glows oddly orange; daybreak’s flaming the treetops of the back grove.
Marvin, where are you?
Both my younger brothers lay sound asleep in Mitchell’s room. I switch on the light in Ren’s room opposite, its windows facing west and the driveway.
Daddy and Luther should
just about be there by now.
Ren’s mattress is bare, except for the tidy stack of Doto’s pink sheets. During the nine months she’s elsewhere, our grandmother’s sheets, two sets of them, sit folded in the upstairs linen closet. The sheets are from downtown Chicago’s Carter-Ferris-Mott store. “I can’t sleep on
thing else,” I heard Doto tell Mrs. Ruth Ferris at last year’s Florida Party at the big Ferris house south of town. From there, she launched into “My aunt Ethel was a Carter, of the Cape Cod Carters; I’m sure we’re related to your father-in-law’s partner.”
in that lemon grove, Buddy will find him.
Southerners set great store by their ancestry, but it’s a rare Rebel who can go toe-to-toe with my Yankee grandmother and win. Doto dotes on her lineage the way other old ladies delight in dahlias or Staffordshire teacups. Given half a chance, she blatantly brags she named Daddy, her firstborn, for “Richard Warren of the
”; her daughter Eleanor for “the wife of William the Conqueror” and Uncle Harry for “the Revolutionary War hero General Light-Horse Harry Lee, of the New York Lees, not those people in Virginia.”
Shouldn’t they be back by now?
Stuffing and fluffing Doto’s pillows, I hear,
, the roar of the truck engine, Buddy’s barking and the urgent blast of Daddy’s horn. I run to the open window and yell, “Daddy, what’s wrong?”
He jumps out onto the driveway and shouts, “Roo, get your mother. We need blankets, towels—quick!”
Hurtling down the steps two, three at a time, I nearly crash into her, arms full of linens from the downstairs closet. Together, we race out of the house to the truck.
Luther’s on his knees in the back. Daddy grabs towels and blankets, yells “Stand back now!” and springs to the sideboard, bending low. A raggedy moan rises from the shadows of the truck bed. Mother steps forward to peer over the side and, with a sharp gasp, spreads her arms like wings and folds them backwards, trapping me behind her. I wiggle away and dash to the tailgate. Jumping up on the back bumper, I see with a shock the blood-covered body in the back.
Marvin Cully, who I’ve known all my life, who taught me to pick tangelos without ripping the fruit cap, who showed me the secret of steering a go-cart, who started the game of rhyming my name, lies drenched in blood in the bed of my father’s truck. His head and eyes are covered with something, a familiar fabric, one of Ren’s striped T-shirts, turned into a terrible blood-soaked turban. Bright red, dark brown, dried black blood is everywhere: congealing in cuts on his jaw and neck, seeping through rips in his shirt and pantlegs, oozing out of scrapes on the tops of his bare feet. “Marvin! You all
?” I cry as the sickening sweet smell heaves my stomach into my throat. His lips, bleeding in a bright red trickle onto his chin, don’t move, can’t answer.
“G’wan now, Roo!” Luther yells in a garbled plea, replacing a stained picking sack with a soft towel under Marvin’s head.
“Lizbeth!” Daddy barks, settling blankets over Marvin’s chest.
Mother’s hands, like claws, yank me down, turn me around, clutch me to her chest. “No, Roo, no!” she cries, walking stiffly backward toward the house. Her heart, like mine, drums in my ear.
“Lizbeth, call Doc Johnny! Tell him we have a bad case of Klan fever,
bad! We’ll be at his back door in ten minutes. Okay?”
“Okay,” Mother says, steering us onto the walk. “Go!”
“Damn them,” Daddy swears. “Damn those damn Klanners to hell!”
The truck engine growls and jerks into reverse down the driveway. As the front porch door slams behind us, two figures float in the bright sunlight now filling the stairwell. “Mother?” the boys call, sleepily scratching themselves.
“Ren, take Mitchell into the kitchen,” she commands, waving them off to the back. She reaches for the phone to dial Doc Johnny and as she does so, lets me go. At my side, a dark, damp nose sniffs its concern; I feel myself sinking, sobbing into the furry softness of Buddy’s neck.