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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

Trampled, beaten, teargassed, jailed, Benders never backed up. ('No white man gonna tell me not to march,' Lucy says, jutting her chin. 'Only make me march harder.') If they seemed fearless, reckless, the reason was the river. At night, they could slip back into its sheltering arms, where whites didn't dare, or bother, to follow.

'I loved to go over there,' Mary Lee says, giggling. 'Just so I could tell the white folks, and Mr. Lummie, 'You can't jail us all.' '

King heard about Gee's Bend and had to see it. He came one cold February night, three weeks before Bloody Sunday, weak from a virus, ignoring the warnings of his security staff, who feared for his safety in a county run by Sheriff Lummie. Through a sideways-blowing rain, his caravan of cars made slow progress along the mud roads of Gee's Bend, and by the time he reached Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, a sagging barn with planks for pews, the hour was past midnight.

A pot-bellied stove gave off scant heat. A bare lightbulb hanged from the ceiling. Cold rain blurred the windows, and Sheriff Lummie lurked against the back wall. Then King stepped through the front door, and Pleasant Grove became the warmest, brightest, safest place on Earth.

'They had a little prayer,' Mary Lee says. 'They sung a song. And then they turned it over to him.'

There was something about King that made Mary Lee's blood race, something she'd never seen in a black man before, a quality beyond her powers of description. 'It was just like, like . . . .' She searches for the word, shyly, the faraway look falling across her face. Then the look lifts. 'It was power.'

King had been losing his voice for days, but he still managed to shake the walls of Pleasant Grove with a sound like nothing Mary Lee had ever heard, or else like everything she'd ever heard blended into a song that gave her goose bumps. It was a thunderclap before a lightning storm. It was a steamboat horn conjuring far-off places. It was Gabriel's trumpet calling her home.

'He was a God-sent man,' Mary Lee says. 'He said he was gonna make it better for us colored people, and that everybody could have some of what they want to have.'

King delivered a message that amounted to Revelation for Mary Lee: He told her that she might not speak with perfect grammar, might not own more than one dress, might not be more than a dirt farmer descended from slaves, but she was every bit as good as those white folks across the river. Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, 'I come over here to Gee's Bend to tell you--you are somebody.'

No one had ever said that to Mary Lee before.

Another time, Mary Lee saw King in Camden and gave him a big hug. She met him again in Selma and watched in awe as he drank from a 'whites only' fountain.

'I never saw a black person do a thing like that!' she says. 'I was so glad. I said, 'I'm going to get me a taste my own self.' My sister tried to hold me back by the coat. I said, 'You're welcome to that coat. I'm getting me some of that water.' '

She savors the memory.

'You know,' she says, 'it was no more different than other water. But it was colder.'

Her heart drummed hardest when King described the future. Like Mary Lee, he saw the future in his dreams. I have a dream, he kept saying, I have a dream.

I have them too, Mary Lee thought.

It was around then that white folks got together and decided the ferry had to go. Maybe they couldn't stop King, or his movement, but they could sure as hell keep a bunch of troublesome Negroes on Gee's Bend.

There was no public meeting, no notice in the newspaper. Mary Lee and others just went down to the river one day and found their link to Camden cut. Though cars were rare, and the dirt roads of Gee's Bend were impassable much of the year, Benders now would be forced to drive around the river whenever they needed to buy a hoe or see a doctor.

'We didn't close the ferry because they were black,' Sheriff Lummie was rumored to have said. 'We closed it because they forgot they were black.'

CHAPTER THREE / A Change of Heart

On the surface, Mary Lee's river is just another plain brown river, skittering down the middle of the Deep South like a raindrop down a dirty window. But rivers have their faraway looks too.

Slow, timid, her river typically keeps to itself, hiding between steep banks the color of blushing cheeks. On hot summer days, it goes through the steaming fields at about the speed of a Model T, giving no sign of its quick temper, no hint of the Indians, settlers, slaves and steamships strewn along its floor, 40 feet down, all guarded by poisonous water moccasins and man-sized catfish and alligators that will bite a hound dog in half. 'No one,' a Camden minister wrote in the early '30s, 'plays in the Alabama River.'

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