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Sunday Report

Crossing Over

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope--and doom.

August 22, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A ferry would close a 180-year-old circle, and Mary Lee is made of circles. Her body is round, her face is round, her river is round. In Mary Lee's world, everything is round, because it's not until the end of something--a century, a story, a sentence--that you really understand the beginning. Maybe it's all this ferry talk that's got her mind circling back. She's always had a gift for dreaming the future. Lately, she can't stop reliving the past.

Also, her mind is busy with something else, something more pressing than a ferry, though it feels connected. Mary Lee is sick, violently sick, and her sister recently foretold doom. 'Cancer,' her sister said, and Mary Lee could only agree.

She's spent her whole life in this timeless place. How did age manage to find her? She still has the flirty giggle, the smile that makes men trip over themselves in church. How can her hair be sprouting tufts of gray like summer dandelions? Walking down the dirt lane, swinging her arms and looking up at the clouds, she could be a sixth-grader coming home from school. And yet, Mary Lee's life has been a series of sorrows and betrayals, and some days every bit of it shows on her face, despite the faraway look she wears to keep people from her deepest thoughts.

'Some people have a good life,' she says. 'But I had a rough life. But I thank God that he helped me come through, and I ain't dead.'

While among the living, she plans to keep moving. Every day, she does a dozen chores, then makes rounds, seeing to the needs of her lovely people, which is how she describes those inside the circle of her heart. She has a mother to nurse, a brother to mind, grandchildren to raise, cousins to bury. Most of her life she picked cotton, now she tends people. If death or a ferry means to stop her, there's nothing to do but wait. Like dreaming the future, waiting is one of Mary Lee's special gifts.

Every Bender knows how to wait. Living here, you learn that fate is like a ferry. It comes when it comes.

And when it gets here, everyone must cross.

CHAPTER TWO / The Road to Freedom

There was a ferry once.

A flat-bottomed skiff, it wasn't much more than Huck Finn's raft. And when Mary Lee was born, its pilot was a cranky old-timer named Uncle Linzie, who would pole you across the 600-yard river like a Venetian gondolier--if he felt like it.

Benders would ride the ferry into Camden, the sun-bleached country town across the river, for groceries and medicine. Camden, the seat of Wilcox County, was the only source Benders had for basic needs, the ferry their only link.

Still, Benders knew to use the ferry sparingly, because Camden was nearly all white, and most of its 1,000 residents meant to keep it that way. 'You'd have to run through Camden,' says Lucy Mingo, 68, who lives up the road from Mary Lee, by the swamp. 'They was dirty people over there.'

Camden was the kind of town where the newspaper got its start in the early 1800s, printing ads for slave-catchers. It was the kind of town where the manager of the Wilcox Hotel would tell a government worker in 1941, 'A nigrah is a nigrah. And if you go and try to fix'em up, make somethin' out of 'em, put 'em to livin' like white folks and try to treat 'em decent, you don't do anything but make a mean nigger out of 'em that somebody eventually will have to kill.' It was the kind of town ruled for a third of this century by a pear-shaped sheriff named Lummie Jenkins, whose pastimes included hunting quail and tormenting Benders. His thick glasses, Mary Lee recalls, turned his black eyes into burnt corn kernels.

Then, Martin Luther King Jr. appeared.

In the early '60s, King's voting rights crusade took aim at Wilcox County, where no black had ever cast a ballot, though blacks outnumbered whites four to three. When King called for Benders to march on the Camden courthouse and demand their right to register, whites heard him crying, 'Revolt!' while Benders heard him saying, 'Cross that river for freedom.'

They heard, and they crossed. The ferry nearly capsized as Benders swarmed into Camden, clapping hands, singing. They didn't always stop at Camden, either. Often they stomped onward through Alabama, joining King in the most famous protests of the civil rights movement.

Some braved the nightsticks and bullwhips of Bloody Sunday, 1965, when marchers crossing the Alabama River at Selma were overrun by state troopers. It was one of the horrific moments of the era, a peaceful demonstration meeting a wall of brute force on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and it turned America's stomach. Among the thousands of river crossings, it was one that led to change. Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

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