It is sometimes assumed that the Civil Rights movement affected all Southerners, black and white, when it was happening. Another side of the truth from that time is many white Southerners were removed or sheltered from it. In this essay, Karren Pell shares her story about working on a latter-day movement-focused project, when she became more aware of what had occurred around her when she was younger.
My Ole Granny
by Karren Pell
I was in major overload mode. As my ole granny used to say, “Burning the candle at both ends!” I had turned my front room into a quarantined kitten nursery for ten kittens I had recently rescued. They had been born in a feral colony around the corner; their mothers had abandoned them. My friend and I had gone over there to save a few, and she just kept picking up kittens and putting them in the carrier— like digging up potatoes. In addition to them needing to be bottle-fed, all of them had respiratory infections and required medication twice a day.
I realized these babies were going to cost me a pretty penny, to get them well and then vaccinated, so I took on a freelance editing project to help pay for it. I thought the project would take two weeks, but after I had been working for a month, it still wasn’t finished. I had quoted them a fee based on two weeks. Now, I was barely making minimum wage on the project, and problems just kept popping up—like an editing black hole. My house was dusty and smelly thanks to the litter boxes for the kittens; I had not touched any of my other writing projects in weeks; my friends wondered where I had disappeared to; and my husband threatened an intervention. Like my ole granny used to say, yes, I was burning the candle at both ends, and it was a short candle!
The book I was editing involved the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. I was missing the chapter on the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been pastor of “Dexter,” as the community called their church. King and other church and community leaders launched the Bus Boycott, recognized as the start of the Civil Rights movement, from that church—specifically in King’s basement office. I called my contact to receive some illumination on the plan concerning the church’s chapter. He said he had not written the chapter on the church and, in addition, he had lost all the notes he had been given. Great . . . The Deadline from Hell loomed, and frankly, my dear, he just didn’t give a damn. Before he hung up, he gave me the telephone number of a Dr. H— at the church who perhaps could help me.
I dialed the number.
The gentleman I was seeking answered the telephone. He said he had sent notes and photos, and was distressed I did not have them. He was not the only one distressed! I asked if he had kept copies of the notes or the original copies of the photos. He said he would look and see what he could find. He seemed to think he had given the former editor, my contact, a chapter. But I had nothing. Nothing . . .
I set the chapter about the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church aside and started working on yet another chapter that needed editing. I worked for about two hours, and then suddenly my dogs started raising Cain. I could not get to the front porch to look out because I could not walk into the front room without waking up ten kittens who were somehow sleeping through the mayhem. So, I went out the back door and walked down my driveway and saw the cause of the ruckus: an elderly, black gentleman in a blue seersucker suit.
“Dr H— ?” I called to him.
He stopped and raised his hand. It was summer in Alabama and that means 90 degrees plus, and we were standing in the sun.
“I brought you the chapter,” he said.
Well, as my old granny used to say, “There was no help for it.” I invited him into my house. My out-of control-total-mess house. That same ole granny was rolling in her grave. Yep, I let him right in my front door past three crates with three litter boxes that needed cleaning and ten kittens who were now awake and letting me know about it. I apologized for the mayhem and the mess. He seemed oblivious.
He smiled and said, “Kittens are little angels sent to us.”
I offered him the only seat in the next room that didn’t have books and papers or other cats in it—my chair. I brought in a dining room chair for me. He held a worn, black, loose-leaf notebook in his hands. He proudly said, “I did have copies of what I sent. I worked a long time on this. This is all you will need.”
These days, authors must meet very specific copy requirements: font, style, picture reproduction stats. This sweet, elderly man had created a scrapbook. A scrapbook. What was I supposed to do with a scrapbook . . . ? It was full of photos from copy machines. Copy machines. . .
“Do you have the original photos,” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said, shaking his head.
He then started going through the book showing and explaining to me the information each page held.
“Dear God!” I thought. “I will be here with him all day and still not have the chapter written.”
And then he turned the page and saw a picture of something that stirred a memory. He leaned back into my chair and began to reminisce.
“Dear God!” I thought again. “I am with this man who has just been transported to the past, while my future deadline is bearing down on me!”
But my ole granny had taught me that regardless of the situation, I should “always be a lady.” And so, thankfully, thankfully, I remained quiet. I looked and sounded patient and respectful even as my mind whirled with stress.
I confess as I now write about this moment, that I was not well-versed in the history of the Civil Rights movement. I was a teenager when the movement started. As the movement continued, so did my life. In the 1960s, I was married with a baby and living in North Carolina when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The trauma and importance of it all whirled around my life, but affecting it only peripherally, as I worked full-time, took care of my baby, and dealt with a difficult husband (“difficult”—I struggled with this word while writing, as my ole granny always told me, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” but I need to convey the hardships I was living through. So—“difficult.”) Every dawn presented a challenge to me. Every night found me exhausted.
I remember standing in the hosiery department of the large downtown store, where I was working, and hearing the announcement that the store was closing early due to the fear of riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I remember thinking, “What is the use to riot?” I remember thinking I would be short working hours and thus short on my weekly pay. I understood from a distance that the African-American community was involved in a struggle to achieve the simple concept of equality, those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we are taught about in school. I understood from my own day-to-day reality the struggle of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads was often more than I accomplished—for my own life the pursuit of happiness was defined as rent paid and at least some food in the kitchen. I was struggling, and that struggle took all my energy. Therefore, I did not see, I did not know, I did not understand that an entire population of American citizens had faced and continued to face a more serious and, yes, even deadly struggle.
As the ’60s passed and my own timeline continued, I was able to improve my circumstances. I found a way to go to school; the baby grew up; I left the husband; I got a good job. In short, I became focused on other mountains to climb, rivers to cross, dreams to chase, losses to mourn, falling down, getting up, choosing the next road. Although that road was certainly never even close to Easy Street, I was the typical white person who really did not have a concept of the harsh reality African-Americans faced before—and even after—the Civil Rights movement.
Now, here I was in my living room with a man who lived through those times. However, I was not yet understanding that gift. I was just wanting to finish a chapter about a church where Martin Luther King, Jr. was minister. However, Dr. H— had just transported himself back to the 1950s, and though I could not go back with him, I was going to be privileged to hear the account firsthand, whether I wanted to or not.
He spoke softly and rather slowly. It was as if he was almost watching that time in his life like a movie and telling me what he was seeing: “I had moved to Montgomery as a young man to work with Vernon Johns. I was on fire, and so was he. I knew he would bring about change. But then he announced his retirement. I was devastated. The congregation was devastated.” He paused.
I did not know about the man he was speaking of, Vernon Johns, nor the specific issues they sought to change. I knew that, at that time, society was segregated. I did not know, nor understand, the deep and painful consequences of segregation. I did know I had a deadline and needed to finish that chapter. I did know that many African Americans were refused the right to vote. I did not know the extreme measures taken to keep them from voting or the dangerous steps many took to be able to claim their right to vote. I did know the litter boxes needed attention, and soon the kittens would need feeding and medicating. I knew that people during marches were beaten, attacked, and had died. I did not know the violence was widespread and common. I did know, regarding the book, that the clock was ticking.
“Well,” he continued, in that soft, slow, lilting voice, “Vernon had to be replaced. We wondered who could ever take his place. We wanted to continue our work for equality, for freedom. Church leaders recommended a young minister from Atlanta, Georgia. We were not happy with the idea. We didn’t want a young, new minister. We wanted someone with experience—a leader to help us continue our fight. But they sent him anyway. We grumbled into our places in church that first Sunday to hear his trial sermon. Of course, we loved the sermon. That was it—we wanted him.”
Then, “And that was Martin.”
He sat quiet. But it ricocheted around in my stressed brain: “And that was Martin.”
The whirl of my life slowed down. All my roaring anxieties quieted. The energy in the room softened. The very air became less charged. I felt myself take a breath.
“And that was Martin.”
He smiled and closed the scrapbook, again affirming, “This is all you will need.”
It wasn’t. But that was OK.
My ole granny must have done a good job teaching me, because suddenly I somehow had the good sense, or grace, or gumption to realize the gift I had been given: a brief glimpse into real time history. I thanked him for his time and effort,and assured him the chapter would be fine.
Then he left.
I wrote the chapter from the information he gave me. I finished editing the rest of the book. The manuscript was late. The press got over it. The kittens got well. They all found homes. The book was published and released. Perhaps my ole granny was doing more than rolling over in her grave, after all. Maybe she was pulling some strings for me in that great Hereafter. I’ll take all the help I can get.
As holes of time allowed in the days that followed, I educated myself about the Civil Rights movement: the cross burnings, the lynchings, the beatings. I read about the harsh treatment, the daily injustices. I learned about the losses and the victories. So at least then I knew better. I could never really understand. But at least I learned the history and knew about the bravery, sacrifice, and hard work of so many who made a change happen. A change that desperately needed to happen. A change I needed to know had happened.
I spoke with Dr. H— at the release party for the book. He said he liked the chapter. I hope he did. Nothing I could have written would have done the history justice. Nothing I could have written could have recreated the memories, the power, or even that remembered “And that was Martin” moment.
I just hope I done my ole granny proud.
Karren Pell writes in multiple genres. A singer-songwriter published and recorded internationally, Karren Pell’s musical compositions include commercial songs and pieces in theatrical works, most notably the songs of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Fair and Tender Ladies. Karren also writes popular history books. Her first book, Alabama Troubadour, is published by River City Publications. With co-author William Goss, she wrote Tallassee for Arcadia Publishing. Montgomery’s Historic Neighborhoods, Montgomery Now and Then, and Images of America: Montgomery, with co-writer Carole King are also published by Arcadia Publishing. In 2020, History Press released Classic Restaurants of Montgomery. Karren lives in a 100-year-old bungalow with husband Tim Henderson and a collection of cats and dogs.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF-Lesson-Plan Personal Essay Epiphany