Recap: Yonah is forced to eat dinner at the home of the Herrings and to meet a nephew who, Yonah suspects, is part of the KKK. He wants desperately to warn Mickey of imminent danger.
School that day just dragged and dragged. My mind was preoccupied with what was happening with Mickey Schwerner, and with going with Mickey and James to see the burned Zion church.
I thought about the warning threat that had sounded so real. I’d have to run like crazy to make it there by 12:30 but I had to warn Mickey.
All the classroom windows were open wide, but the air that came in was just as hot as the air inside. The muffled sound of people outside talking and laughing drifted into the room.
The history teacher, Mr. Scott, was standing next to my desk. “I called your name Mr. Hartstein. Where is your head today?”
“Sorry, sir,” I stammered.
“You prepared for the final?”
I had tried to study. It was hard to concentrate with everything else on my mind. I nodded.
“Good,” he said. “If you don’t get a good grade, Hartstein, I’ll keep you after class to work on it.”
I stared at my shiny desktop, wondering if the black students in their school even had desks. My fingers trembled as I filled in the multiple-choice answers about the different time periods we had studied. We’d learned such a slanted angle on the Civil War, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was tempted to write my true thoughts in the essay section as I did on the last history test, but I decided not to risk it again, because I had to get out of school early today, and not stay after.
Mr. Scott collected my paper and glanced at it. I felt my heart jumping into my throat. He didn’t say anything and just marched back to his desk. I prayed that it was a good sign.
He sat marking the papers. We all sat silently watching. I hated this part of his class, especially when you were told to sit silently to wait for your grade. It seemed like he liked the power it gave him over us.
After about 45 minutes, he looked up at the class and began calling students up to take back their graded papers. When he got to my name, I saw the frown on his face and felt my stomach clench. No, I couldn’t stay after. I had to go. Please.
“Why these careless mistakes?” he asked loudly so everyone could hear.
I felt my cheeks burn. “I don’t know, sir,” I stammered.
“Sloppy. Your grammar is atrocious. You must stay after class to work on this. It is unacceptable.”
I took the paper back and slunk back to my desk. Now, I was stuck here, and I had only an hour before James would be picking me up by the dry cleaners. How could I get out of here in time?
I reread and saw some of my careless mistakes. I fixed the grammar the best I could. I glanced up at the clock. I still had 20 minutes, if he would let me go.
He took the paper and skimmed it. He mumbled something and grunted, which I took to mean I could go.
I was heading towards the door when he called my name.
“Not so fast, Hartstein. I want the last paragraph of this essay fixed. You need to fix the grammar and write a stronger conclusion.”
I glanced up at the clock. Fifteen minutes until James would be pulling up at the dry cleaners.
I gritted my teeth and tried my best to fix the last paragraph. He reread it slowly. I watched the hands on the clock move too quickly. I only had ten minutes now. Would they wait for me? I wanted to warn Mickey about the threat note. It was too credible a threat to ignore.
Finally, Mr. Scott said, “You can go now.”
I had five minutes. I was glad I’m a fast sprinter. I took off as fast as I could and made it to the bakery with a half minute to spare.
Mickey pulled up in an old Chevy station wagon. One side was dented. I was surprised to see other people in the car as I stepped inside. My mind was racing. How would I tell Mickey about the threat in front of these new students? All three of the civil rights workers looked tired. Andy introduced me to the new arrivals. “This is Cindy Lewin and Kathy Morrison. They just arrived from New York. And James and Jordan Katton are brothers from Ohio.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Yonah Hartstein.”
Mickey said, “We’ll drop Cindy and Kathy by the Lewis family. They said they would take two girls. John and Jordan, we’ll have to take to the Evers family. I hate bothering them now with all that happened to them, but they’re the only family I know of besides yours, James, who will take these students.”
One of the girls was chatting with her friend. “I can’t believe we are actually here. I’ve seen photos, but to actually be here is amazing.”
“I’m not afraid. I mean I guess I should be but I’m not.”
I thought to myself: You should be. It’s super dangerous here.
The students chatted among themselves. I sat back and watched the scenery fly past. Southern magnolia scented the air. Crepe myrtle bloomed in red and pink and peach. Well-kept gardens of tulips, irises, peonies, and lilies adorned the neighborhoods we passed. Beneath all the exterior of Southern countryside beauty roiled ugly hatred, I mused.
I could see the tension in Mickey’s shoulders.
James kept whispering to Mickey. I caught bits and piece of the conversation. I got the idea James was talking about the Zion Church burning.
We drove through town in Longdale until we reached the part of town where the sidewalks ended, and the roads were no longer paved. The homes were shabby with cracked paint and broken fences, and there were no street lights. One of the girls exclaimed, “This looks terrible. How can we stay here?”
Mickey said, “You’re here to make things better. Now you see how the conditions are for the black people here.”
We pulled up to a rundown house with shutters hanging and kids running barefoot around in the yard. The girls stepped out slowly. Mickey jumped out of the car and led them to the front door. A black woman wearing a faded housedress and a scarf opened the door. She peered over the side of the door at the two young white girls standing in front of her. Mickey made the introductions. She opened the door wider and the girls stepped inside.
I wondered what it would be like for those girls. It was culture shock for them.
Mickey returned, and we headed to the Evers home. When we got there, the two white students stepped out confidently and thanked Mickey and James for the ride.
Mickey said, “We have to stop by the Coles. Those poor folks were beaten by the KKK last night before the church burning. I want them to file affidavits.”
“Won’t do no good for them,” James said.
Mickey stroked his small beard. “It’s doesn’t matter the result. They have to exercise their rights. It’s important.”
Now was the time I should tell Mickey about the threat. I tried to find my voice.
We pulled up to the Cole home. It was a modest home, not as run down as the ones we had just seen. There were curtains and the windows were all clean and the front of the house looked like it had recently been painted. There were even some daisies planted in neat rows by the front walkway.
I kept searching for the right words. I had to warn Mickey.
Somehow, it was never the right moment.
Mrs. Cole let us in. She was limping. Mickey said, “I am so sorry about what happened, Mrs. Cole.”
She motioned us to sit down on a brown couch in the small living room. She brought in a pitcher of lemonade and four glasses with ice cubes. “It’s not your fault, Mr. Schwerner. This is how life is here in this part of the country. I am just thankful to the L-rd that he spared my husband’s life.”
Mr. Cole shuffled into the room. Though he was only in his fifties, he looked much older with the bruises on his cheeks. He had his jaw wired. “They busted my jaw, but it didn’t break,” he said.
“It must be so painful,” Mickey said.
Mr. Cole shrugged. “I don’t think we’re going to stay here much longer. I think we are going to move out of this place.”
Mickey nodded. Andy sipped on the glass of lemonade. “They burned the church,” James blurted.
Mrs. Cole gasped. A tear trickled down her cheek. “It’s just unbelievable the hate people can have.”
Mickey said, “I just believe people – all people – have an innate goodness in them. They just need it to be brought out.”
Mrs. Cole shook her head. “It’s an idea I wish I shared with you, but I faced the hatred there last night and I didn’t see no good – only bad.”
I wondered at Mickey’s naïveté. This was my opening – the reason I’d needed so much to come today. Now I had to tell him. “No, you can’t believe all people are innately good. People have to work on being good. They need to be taught moral values and that some people are evil. That is a fact. My grandfather taught that to me.”
Mickey shook his head. “I don’t agree.”
“Mickey, there’s a credible threat against you,” I said.
Mickey glanced towards me. “We get threats all the time. I had to disconnect my phone.”
“I got a warning note on my bike. They’re serious about killing you. I was dragged to this horrible KKK meeting.”
Mickey shrugged. “How did you get to that kind of meeting? They’re always about killing. I am not afraid.”
How could I convince him that he was in grave danger?
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams (a novel, Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time – historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes for the community column for the Queens Jewish Link and she writes the Queens page for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivos and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.