Authors: Tracy Sugarman
Nobody Said Amen copyright © 2012 Tracy Sugarman
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any
fashion, print, facsimile, or electronic, or by any method yet to be
developed, without express written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events
and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination
or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover art by Tracy Sugarman
Cover design by Miggs Burroughs
Book design by Barbara Aronica-Buck
Print edition ISBN: 978-1-935212-95-9
E-book ISBN: 978-1-935212-85-0
First edition November 2012
Printed in the United States of America
For Bette Keirn Lindsey,
Lake Lindsey, and
The cab left the bright neon of the highway from the airport and slowed sharply as it entered the darkened campus.
“You got a kid out here?”
The man in the back seat continued to peer into the darkness. “No,” he said.
“Place’s been deserted since graduation,” said the driver. “Last fare I had out here was two weeks ago.” He caught his eyes in the rearview mirror. “You sure of the address?”
Ted Mendelsohn checked Max’s notes. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
The car’s motor echoed against the silent college buildings as the cab moved slowly ahead behind its probing finger of light. At the rise of a small hill, he tapped the driver’s shoulder. “The hall should be right after the next turn. Let me off at the corner.”
The driver shrugged. “If you say so.”
As the car eased to a stop, two young black men with backpacks crossed from the darkness and trotted toward the single lighted building across the deserted green. The driver turned in his seat. “Not many people around. None of my business, but you sure you want to be out here?”
Mendelsohn watched the two slender figures as they loped into the bright entryway of the orientation building. “Yeah. I’m sure.”
But from the minute he entered the orientation building, he wasn’t so sure. He sensed he wasn’t welcome. As his eyes adjusted to the bright light he saw he was adrift in a sea of khaki and denim, backpacks, knapsacks, and duffle bags, and realized that he was not only the oldest person in the room but the most over-dressed. He heard the hiss of “fuzz,” then, “Watch it. FBI.” What the hell was he thinking when he’d packed for the flight? Christ, he was dressed like he was catching the 8:12 to Grand Central for a meeting with Max at
. He knew the room was watching and judging. A guy twice their age in a suit and a tie with a Valpack? Going to Mississippi to register black voters? Pissed with himself, he worked his way through the press of bodies and found an uncluttered seat against the wall. He loosened his tie, shed his jacket and stretched his legs, still stiff from the flight. A hell of a way to start, Mendelsohn. He watched the students, and beneath the ripples of laughter and sudden shouts of recognition, he sensed a stifled tension in the room, and it had nothing to do with him. The volunteers looked tentative themselves, doing what he was doing, taking the measure of strangers who would soon be more than strangers.
He got up and crossed to the desk to sign in with the woman from the Council of Churches, remembering meeting her at the New York office. Holmgren? Holstone? “Holstein,” she said with a grin. “Jean Holstein. Glad you could make it, Mr. Mendelsohn.” She checked her pad. “Journalist.
“Guilty as charged.”
Her eyes drifted across the youthful faces in the chattering room. “Nice to have someone my age going with us, Mr. Mendelsohn.”
He tried not to smile and held out his hand, “At our age, Jean, I think you can call me Ted.”
A short, thin young Negro left a tight knot of blacks. He stood, seriously searching the throbbing hall before approaching the desk.
Jean nodded. “A message for you, John. Mickey and Rita Schwerner just got in. They asked me to tell you to save them a beer.”
The somber young man nodded, smiling for the first time. “Thanks, Jean. That’s good news. We were hoping they’d make it out. They’ve been checking out the church fires, and they’ve had a rough time.” He nodded briefly to Mendelsohn and trotted to the small black caucus. “Mickey and Rita are here.” Each word seemed newly formed, perhaps a way to eliminate a stutter.
“Who are those kids, Jean?”
“SNCC kids, field workers from Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The young guy is John Lewis. He’s in charge.” And that was how the orientation week started for him in Oxford, Ohio, June 1964.
Later, a long week later, one of the SNCC kids, Dennis Flanagan, told him: “It was the seersucker suit you were wearing, man! Everybody saw you thought FBI,” and grinned at the memory.
“No. It was the hat,” insisted Bobby Willis. “Definitely the hat. Nobody but FBI guys have worn hats since Kennedy gave them up.” So when Mendelsohn bought the table a round of beers they pounded the table, and when he announced his next trick, “the disappearance,” they hooted and watched appreciatively as he stepped on his Panama straw hat and tossed it into the trash at the end of the bar. Bobby Willis said, “Nice, Pop.”
On Saturday he called Max at his home in Yonkers. And Max sounded like Max. “Jesus, Teddy, why did you wait all this time to call me? You couldn’t find a phone in Ohio?”
“I was adjusting, Max. Taking stock. Convincing the kids I’m not FBI.”
Max laughed. “You? FBI? Over J. Edgar’s dead body!” His voice dropped. “How’s it going?”
“It’s too soon to know. It’s a deserted campus in the middle of Ohio farm country. You can smell the hay in the fields and see the stars at night. And you can watch the kids, almost five hundred of them this week, white kids mostly.” He paused as a boisterous bunch of volunteers descended from the dining room. “I do. And they’re from everywhere, Max.”
“What about the reporters?”
“A few. AP. UPI. A stringer from the
. Not a story yet. Not going to be a problem.”
“Mostly field workers from Mississippi. The SNCC kids. They may be our story.” A memory came unannounced. “You remember in ’44 when our outfit arrived in Plymouth, England, after the bombing? You and I were on our first liberty and we ran into a group of RAF pilots? Well, these SNCC kids remind me of them.”
Max said, “Talk to me.”
“They’re tough. They’re cool. They’re sinewy. They’re knowing. And they’re tired.”
“I remember. And?”
“And they’re glad these white kids have come to help. But they own the war they’ve been fighting. Like the RAF kids.” He wanted to find the right words. “And it’s not the white kids’ war because they haven’t been there. Can you remember that feeling in ’44?”
“Then you remember. They loved each other. Not us. Same thing here. These white college kids are new troops, too shiny-new, maybe. But I can read the questions in the black kids’ eyes.”
“Like can these scrubbed kids make it through a summer in the Delta? Like can they really connect us to power in Washington? Can they find us bail money? Can we trust these strangers?”
Max cut in, irritated. “They don’t trust the students? Why the fuck not? They’ve come to help. What’s the problem?”
Ted hesitated. “It may not be a problem. The SNCC kids aren’t hostile, they want to trust them. But for a lot of them hope has been something that melts in your black hand. It’s going to take a lot of doing, in not much time. And it may be our story, Max.” He looked at the phone that connected him with the commonplace world he’d lived in, a world that was somehow receding. “It doesn’t feel like an Ohio campus, it feels like an arena in the middle of nowhere. It’s a scary space filled with images painted by black field workers who’ve been shot at for trying to register blacks so they can vote in America. They’re conjuring up a Mississippi the volunteers can’t even imagine, that I can’t imagine. The time’s hanging suspended, five days, four days, three days, two till we head for Mississippi. Christ, it feels like our countdown on the ship before D-Day, Max. We both sweated our balls off. I’m twenty years older than these kids and I’ve seen a hell of a lot more than they have, but I find I’m just one more white guy staring at a Mississippi that the blacks insist that I see.”