Recap: Ruchama realizes that she needs to tell her mother about her scary symptoms. A girl in her class named Vivian threatens her if she doesn’t stop writing the research paper. Although she threatened her, Ruchama feels she should keep working on it because there is a possibility that it will be published in a newspaper.
“Why doesn’t the president get involved more to enforce the civil rights laws? I don’t understand it,” Andy exclaimed.
Mickey stroked his goatee. “In 1963, Governor Wallace stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama, blocking two black students from registering. President Kennedy sent in the National Guard to stop the governor.”
Mickey sighed. “So, President Kennedy tried to enforce civil rights laws. His brother, Robert Kennedy, met with black leaders and he started to get their experience and frustration, but the judge whom Kennedy appointed, Mr. Cox, is a prejudiced pro-segregationist. He blocks everything the President tried to do. And now Johnson is left with the same mess and no one will fix it.”
“We live in America,” I said. “How can this be happening in America?”
“All this hatred is like the crazy hatred in Nazi Germany,” Andy piped in.” It makes no sense.”
“We’re gonna change it. You and me and James here and Andy and all those Northern students pouring in for Freedom Summer. We’re all gonna change it,” Mickey declared.
I wanted to believe that, but the violence we’d just seen and the threats I’d heard all made the dream seem unattainable.
James said his mother had baked a lemon pie for Mickey, and she wanted him to come have some when he got back.
Mickey agreed. “I think we could all use some pie and some love from the Chaneys before we go face the Zion Church.”
“When is your wife coming back?” I asked Mickey.
“She’s finishing up the training tomorrow and she is due back tomorrow night.”
James pulled up to his house. I admired the daffodils lining the front yard. James had just freshly painted the picket fence surrounding the property.
Once I’d asked Ben why we never saw Mr. Chaney when we visited. He confided that his father had left the family, and Mrs. Chaney was left to fend for herself with her five children. James really took over and acted like a father to his siblings.
Mrs. Chaney ushered us in. She said, “Y’all my boys.”
She asked Mickey about Rita and the training in Ohio, and she served heaping plates of homemade lemon pie and tall glasses of sweet tea. She handed me a prewrapped piece of kosher pie and a plastic cup of water.
“This is delicious,” Mickey complimented between mouthfuls. “You outdid yourself, Mrs. Chaney.”
She smiled. Everyone chatted amicably. Mrs. Chaney finally brought up the subject that no one wanted to talk about. “Mickey, they was after you, those men that burned the church.”
“I feel responsible. It’s like someone punched me hard and long. I feel awful for what happened. It was my idea to urge everyone to get active and to exercise their rights. And that’s what brought this violence.”
“You just trying to help us, Mickey. Not your fault we’re dealing with so much adversity. G-d is in charge, not people. We just have to do our best, and I am mighty proud of you, James, Andy, and Yonah for all you’re doing for us.”
It was time to go see the damage.
Mrs. Chaney hugged James goodbye and wished us all the best, and we headed towards Longdale and the burned Zion Church.
We were all quiet on the drive to Longdale. James drove, concentrating on the road. Andy and Mickey ducked down as we drove through town, so no one would see blacks and whites driving together. The heat rose in white waves on the dusty road. It was the middle of the day, and it felt like we were in a 120-degree oven. James rolled down his window. Still the air inside the car was stifling. I felt nervous. It was getting late.
Finally, he pulled up to the spot where the Zion Church used to stand. James opened the car door and stepped outside. Mickey opened his side and froze, staring at what was left of the 60-year-old church.
Andy and I slipped out of the car. Andy strolled towards the charred remains. Mickey whistled in disbelief. He followed Andy over to what was left of the structure. There was a charred church bell and some burned hymnals. Otherwise it looked like the black remains of a barbecue. There was nothing left of the church – nothing. Mickey crumpled onto the ground and slung his arm over his face. “I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe it.”
Andy sat beside his friend. “It’s pretty awful.”
“This is what they do.” James was holding back his emotions. “They just do this. They burn what’s holy and sacred to us to let us know how they feel about us getting rights.”
The air smelled acrid and burnt. I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to look at the charred remains anymore.
“Mickey, let’s go,” James said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
James had to help Mickey up. Seeing the destruction had totally drained him of all energy. I wondered if it had drained his fighting spirit. I hoped not.
We all slid back into the car. I was perspiring like crazy. The heat of the sun was unrelenting. James asked Mickey which road to take. It wasn’t a good idea to take the same route twice. Civil rights workers liked to vary their trail to avoid local sheriffs. Mickey said he should take Route 16 towards Philadelphia. That was the more public road, so he felt safer.
There was a feeling of dread and uneasiness in the car, like the church was just one sign of what could come.
I found myself praying that we could get back quickly and safely to Meridian.
The sun was high in the sky at 3 p.m. James pushed the wagon to 65 miles an hour.
“Oh, no!” James cried.
I felt my stomach clench.
“I see a Chevy sedan headed this way.”
I saw the car. At first it looked like a mirage. In the heat, the car appeared to stand still, but it was actually heading towards us at high speed. The sedan was white with blue trim, and it had an oversized radio antenna on the roof and a red light on the dashboard. Mickey and Andy ducked, and I did, too, so it would appear that James was alone in our car.
Andy whispered to me, “The police know this is our car. They know that the CORE workers use this blue Ford station wagon.”
My neck muscles tightened.
Luckily, the Chevy sped by. I let out a breath.
Mickey looked out the window to see if the Chevy would turn around and come after us.
James kept the car going at the same steady speed. We climbed a hill. On the other side of the hill, I spotted something that made my heart sink. A Mississippi state police cruiser was parked on the side of the road.
We drove slowly past, all of us holding our breath.
“Phew,” James said. “So strange that the police didn’t chase us. We should be back in Meridian in 45 minutes.” Andy began joking about the weather.
I wondered how he could laugh. I still had a gnawing feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach.
In a relaxed way, we drove about three miles and were heading out of the Philadelphia city limits when we heard a police siren.
That same white Chevy sedan was following us. James ignored it and gunned the accelerator. We had to get away from here and fast.
The policeman sat on his horn and sped towards us. I held my ears and davened with all my heart.
Mickey yelled, “I think we should pull over. It’s broad daylight. It’s probably safer to risk arrest and a night in jail than a crazy racing chase.”
“No, Mickey. It’s risky to stop,” James argued. “I don’t think we should.”
The decision was made for us because, just then, the right rear tire blew.
To be continued…
By Susie Garber
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.