Wake Up, Mister Charlie

Kent Jacobson


Local election-day 1967, Tuskegee, Alabama, weeks before James Ray will rifle down Martin Luther King a half-day’s drive up the road in Memphis. I know nothing about the poll watching my English department chair has asked me to do. 

The floor of the voting shack wiggles as I step, the earth beneath visible between the wide-board planks. The windows gape and pines force their way in, the tiny space close, too close. Across the room sits a Black woman, possibly in her seventies, a withered ninety pounds in a baggy, soil-covered dress of burlap, her cruelly wrinkled face a mark of the hours she’s spent in the Alabama sun. 

Yesterday, the graying chair, cautiously dressed in browns, measured her words to me. I’m Tuskegee Institute’s new white boy, twenty-three and fresh from graduate school in Indiana, one of a trifling number of whites at the college. She noted the many questions I’d asked about the surrounding country, and the voting station, she thought, could be my opportunity. The job, she said, was to “watch for anything irregular,” although she doubted I’d stumble into “any of that” with the Black farmers, most casting a ballot for the first time. 

Then again, she didn’t say what to do if I witnessed a white transgression, possibly because there was nothing to do. She assumed the green boy understood how Alabamans felt about the new Black voters and, yes, I’d heard about the administrators at the voter-registration office: the unpredictable hours, the day-long waits in line, the endless longhand copying of pages of the U. S. Constitution, and the non-response to applications. 

A Black civil-rights worker named Sammy Younge had been murdered months earlier after he had spent the day helping farmers negotiate past these same white administrators, Younge’s killer acquitted by a white jury in an hour. 

The town of Tuskegee is eighty percent Black people, most not voting till now, and the region’s white state legislator said, “If that [federal] civil rights commission . . . forces mass registration of unqualified Negroes, there’ll be bloodshed. Why, we’d have n*ggers in office. Can you imagine being arrested by a n*gger sheriff?”*

This isn’t cloud-cuckoo-land. Whites shoot bullets, a .38 in the case of Sammy Younge, and a diminutive old woman in a tattered dress seems to worry that I’m one of them, the ones you can’t fool with, Mister Charlie.

She peeks at me and looks off as if she’s made a mistake, she’s sorry, she means no disrespect, she knows whites think it insolent when a Black person makes eye-contact. She peeks and peeks away—me seated in a flimsy folding chair behind a flimsy folding table, a curly-haired pretty-boy white kid in chinos, button-down, and penny loafers.

She twists her hands together, elbows pressed to her sides, and shrinks into the chair squeezed against the wall, her body still, except for the hands and the eyes that peer continually to the exit. “What’s he doing?” she wonders.

You’re afraid of me? a voice inside whispers. I’m harmless, an outsider. You don’t realize how unessential I am, how low on the list, a tenderfoot teacher mere months from my parents’ home. 

I came to make a place in Alabama, I ache to be of use, and I pick at my nails and sweat in fear in this voting station, at this poll duty, choked by spying pines, inside a beat-up shack in the middle of east nowhere at the dead end of an unmarked dirt two-track. Nobody’s protecting me when the pickups roll up, rifles across the back window, half-crocked crackers out for one more “outside agitator” like the divinity student Jonathan Franklin, shotgunned in Hayneville shielding a Black girl. I kid myself being in the South. I’ve got no magical powers. Maybe my department chair hoped my baby face would make me a lucky charm, my white skin warding off the worst other whites might do. 

Voters give their names at the wobbly table to the college staff in sober shirtwaists in the seats next to me. During a lull, the middle-aged woman nearest asks, What is it like teaching here when you’ve come from so far? 

I hesitate to answer, unsure what I want to admit.   

The students are cautious, I finally manage. They don’t know what to make of my strangeness, I tell her, and I haven’t figured out how to gain their trust. I had them read Richard Wright’s autobiographical Black Boy and hoped it would open them up. The opposite happened. So I tried Invisible Man. Novelist Ralph Ellison, I knew, had been a student at the college. I talked about his portrayal of white stereotypes of Black people. The students darted glances at each other. They barely spoke. 

And why should they speak? I say to the gracious woman. I’m white. 

My bluntness stuns her. She makes a sound in her throat and turns her eyes back to the room without offering a response, race our awkward subject. She doesn’t trust me either.

And when I look for the old woman again . . . there’s an empty chair. 

I scan the place. Gone, she’s gone. 

She didn’t vote. 

She had just come to observe. 

Or . . .  this can’t be why she left, I’m only imagining, I don’t really know . . . she came to the voting station and changed her mind. I drove her out. She fretted I could be the banker’s son, or a mouth to the grocer, and the banker would pull the note, the grocer stonewall credit. 

Vote, and she’d become another of Mister Charlie’s “thankless coloreds”. 

I’m Mister Charlie. I grind fear into bellies. 

Time to stop thinking you’re an innocent, white boy. You’re not, however pure you think you are. You carry the load of others’ sins. Get used to it. You’re playing in this race game even without wanting to. 

Wake up, Mister Charlie. 

*Quoted in “Black citizens boycott white merchants for U. S. voting rights, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1957-1961,” Global Nonviolent Action Database (Swarthmore College), November 9, 2011, https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/Black-citizens-boycott.

Kent Jacobson grew up in a mill-town but wasn’t ready for Alabama in1967. Yet that experience led to 30 years’ teaching in Black and Hispanic settings, including Bard College’s Clemente Course, a 2015 winner of the National Humanities Medal. His writing appears in Hobart, Talking Writing, Punctuate, and elsewhere.

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