When John Calvin Marshall graduated from Harvard in 1956, he was prepared for a life of teaching and relative tranquility. But history had another plan for him: here, a veteran author re-envisions the Martin Luther King Jr. story in fearful, exciting, and violent terms. Political and provocative, And All Our Wounds Forgiven is both a compelling political fable and a striking and tender love story about one of this century’s most charismatic black leaders and the two women he loved.
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A tall woman, straight blond hair brushing her shoulders, sat by the bed of a comatose black woman in a Nashville, Tennessee, hospital.
The white woman had appeared early that afternoon. Shyly, almost fearfully, she asked if she could see Andrea Marshall. If not for the offering of respect in her voice, the head nurse, an almost equally tall black woman, would have assumed she was a reporter. She was about to tell her someone was in the room already, the man who had come in the ambulance with Mrs. Marshall last night, when, from the far end of the corridor, she saw him coming toward them. As he got closer he looked up, saw the white woman at the nurse's station, stopped, and said, "Lisa?"
They embraced with the overeagerness of two who had been absent from each other more years than had been shared. Yet, the looks they exchanged (once past the comparing of hairlines (his) and gray strands (hers)) were a tentative affirmation of the memories joining them, memories as defining of their lives as if they had been married and buried their only child. They embraced again with a tremor of anxiety at this unexpected resurrection of a past that, apparently, had not been buried and now appeared not even to have died, and, unlike them, had not aged.
They released each other and stepped back. "You look as trim and fit as ever," he commented, admiringly.
She nodded, "I stay in shape." She couldn't help but note that he had not. It had been — what? — almost thirty years since she had sneaked him out of Shiloh in the middle of the night and taken him to New York (for reasons she was never told). That man had been thin, almost emaciated. This one was rounded, like a balloon blown up slowly, care being taken to cut off the air before the wisp that would pop the skin. He had become a sphere of a man, the dome of his bald head atop an even rounder body supported by legs that appeared too thin for the weight imposed upon them.
"It's good to see you." The earnestness in his voice would have made her blush if it had come from an adolescent boy. But he was not a teenager and there was a bewilderment in his eyes, not at the present moment that had brought them together but about life itself. There was something he had failed to grasp, and sooner than he would have thought, a half-century of living was past tense and more sentences began with "I remember when ..." than with "I am going to ..." and he was alone, a pain in his heart like the aching of milk in a woman's breasts as the tiny coffin of her child was placed tenderly in the grave. Such loneliness lacked even the illusory edge of a horizon. Elizabeth preferred gazing into the night sky when she wanted to contemplate infinity.
"How long are you staying?"
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"Well, I hope long enough for us to have a chance to talk."
"That would be good," came the unanticipated response, and hearing it, she felt poised on a crest of unshed and unwanted tears. "How's Andrea?" she asked quickly.
"She hasn't regained consciousness, and the doctors don't know if or when."
"Had she been ill?"
He shook his head. "No. I took her to church yesterday and she was fine. We spent the afternoon editing her diaries for publication, and, around eight, just as I was getting ready to go, she collapsed. I called the ambulance and I've been here every since."
Diaries! Andrea had kept a diary? Elizabeth looked at Bobby with renewed interest. How much did he know? How much truth was Andrea telling? Had a truth she feared speaking struck with force enough to paralyze her?
"Would it be OK if I sat with her?" she asked, not wanting to cry, not now, not yet, not until she knew for whom or to what she would be yielding.
"That would be great. It would give me the chance to go home, make some calls and get some sleep."
She hadn't moved from her bedside, not even to go to the cafeteria or the bathroom. When passing in the hallway, nurses, especially the black ones, glanced through the open door of the room (it wasn't everyday somebody famous was in the hospital. The White House had called last night!) and would see Elizabeth's lips moving. If her eyes hadn't been open, they might have thought she was praying (though she didn't look like the kind who knew very much about the Lord, not that you could judge a body's soul from a diamond ring on their finger big enough to bowl with, or from the leather coat laid carelessly over the other chair in the room. That coat was a month of paychecks for an R.N., which didn't mean she wasn't as God-fearing as the Pope even if her nails were manicured as precisely as cut diamonds.)
But prayer was not to be confused with church books or the words that came from preachers' mouths with the ease of profanity. Prayer was the painful submission to the colors in a tear and the mystery of a stone, and when she had heard on the eleven o'clock news the night before that "Andrea Williams Marshall, widow of slain civil rights leader, John Calvin Marshall, suffered a stroke this evening and is listed in grave condition in a Nashville, Tennessee, hospital," she had gotten up immediately, gone to her computer, and through her modem, accessed airline schedules, made a reservation and, before dawn, driven down from the mountain and through the snow in her Blazer. It had taken five hours rather than the usual three to get to Logan Airport in Boston.
Gregory said she didn't think. That was not true. She didn't think as he did. He examined every decision through a round and angled mirror as if it were the tooth of one of his patients. He poked and scraped with the curved hooks of needle-thin instruments, afraid there might be an emotional plaque eating away unseen at the soul.
She acted and explained later, if at all. Nothing made a man feel more unloved than not knowing why. But for her, and she suspected, most women, having to answer a "Why?" was like hitting the brakes on an icy road while doing 60. So she had flown to Nashville, not even telling Gregory where she was going. He would've asked questions for which she didn't have answers. If she had paused and reflected, doubt would have eroded her confidence and left her in stasis — and at home.
For her, knowledge resided in the loins, a certainty like the shifting of the body's center of gravity when her hips and thighs balanced the alternate edges of skis as she essed down a mountain slope on virgin snow. If there were thought at such times, she was its object. From the moment she heard the news she had known only that she needed to be with Andrea.
Maybe it was not important if Andrea heard (and would she have come if Andrea could have listened and said in return?). But after thirty years, it was time.
She stared at the woman in the bed, struck yet again at how much younger than her age she had always looked. She was not so much beautiful as handsome. Like many black women she seemed to have gone from youth to agelessness and become an icon of Woman, primordial, eternal, her face a mask holding in perfect equilibrium the cycles of every woman's life.
"You always looked ten years younger than your age, even the first time I saw you. It was here in Nashville, in the chapel at Fisk. April, 1960. The sit-ins had begun and John Calvin Marshall, the John Calvin Marshall, had come to speak. I was an exchange student from Pomona College in California, here not even two months and found myself thrust into history like a slice of apple into cheese fondue. Everybody thought I was special because I had sat in and gotten arrested. There weren't many blond, blue-eyed twenty-year-old white girls willing to risk getting beat up by the police or a mob, being called 'nigger lover' and spat on. I was the all-American girl. Ever since I was small, people have looked at me and seen corn fields, amber waves of grain and spacious skies. When I walked into rooms you could almost smell apple pie baking and hear The Star-Spangled Banner' in the background. And there I was on a lunch counter stool surrounded by blacks, protesting racial segregation. Blacks loved me and whites wanted to kill me."
She stopped and stared into the distance, a sadness covering her eyes as if she were recalling a love that could have been fulfilled if only — — —
* * *
may 17 1954. i was working on my dissertation at harvard. i left my carrel at the widener library to go for a walk, i happened to wander to harvard square where i passed a newsstand. there, on the front page the headline — the supreme court had declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. i bought a copy and ran to andrea's dorm at radcliffe to share the good news, news as revolutionary as the emancipation proclamation.
what did i know? i was a dumb colored boy getting a ph.d in philosophy. i could not have imagined that the south would defy the supreme court. we were a nation of laws, were we not? public officials, from the president to congress to governors and mayors and county sheriffs, took office with their hands on bibles swearing to uphold the law and the constitution. i was to learn otherwise.
conventional wisdom is that the civil rights movement started with the bus boycott i organized in atlanta or the sit-in movement of the students in 1960. that is not so. historians overlook the enormous impact on the consciousness of the negro when we saw governors and mayors and u.s. senators and congressmen actively defying the highest court in the land, aggressively urging white people to resist desegregation. i still remember the cover of an issue of look magazine; the south says never.
philosophically, the issue was framed as states' rights, that is, the states had rights that the federal government could not contravene. but, i argued silently, what happens when affirming states' rights violates the constitution that binds the states into a nation of laws? america was facing a constitutional crisis that, a hundred years before, had led to civil war. this time, however, war was declared on the negro.
across the south the crude violence and terror of the ku klux klan was replaced by the white shirts and ties of middleclass southern business men and leaders who organized the white citizens council. it terrorized negroes in more sophisticated ways. in mississippi the council threatened the job of any negro who looked like he or she wanted to desegregate the schools. the number of registered black voters in the state dropped from 12,000 to 8,000 in less than a year. in georgia, where fate was to send me, the state board of education ordered all teachers who were members of the naacp to resign from the organization or have their teaching licenses revoked. the year following the school decision, the supreme court ruled that segregated public golf courses, parks, swimming pools and playgrounds were unconstitutional. many southern towns closed their public parks, playgrounds and swimming pools.
for me, the final straw came in 1956. i was now DR. john calvin marshal!. with my bride of a year i moved to atlanta where i had secured a position at spelman college, the school for black women. i remember the evening we sat in the living room after supper, andrea looking at the newspaper while i went over my notes on plato's symposium, wondering how did i teach a treatise on homosexual love to the creme de la creme of negro society?
andrea: have you seen this?
what? i asked.
southern congressmen have issued a manifesto urging the use quote of all lawful means unquote to overturn brown v. board of education.
she read me the names of those who signed the so-called manifesto. they were some of the most prominent in the congress:
strom thurmond of south carolina who race-baited when that would keep him in office and in the seventies learned to say black instead of nigra when that would keep him in office; j.w. fulbright of arkansas, the same fulbright whose name is associated with graduate fellowships for the best and brightest, as in, "i got a fulbright"; i didn't; wilbur d. mills, prominent member of the house who would be arrested for cavorting in a d.c. fountain with a very attractive and very young woman; hale boggs, congressman from louisiana who would die in a plane crash in alaska and one of whose daughters would become a prominent newscaster and political analyst; and sam ervin, the folksy, country lawyer, the principal author of the manifesto, who would become hero of the Watergate hearings, which led to the downfall of president nixon. in all 101 senators and congressmen signed. the only ones who did not were lyndon Johnson, and the two senators from tennessee, estes kefauver and albert gore, sr.
something broke inside me as andrea and i discussed this ignorant insistence on continuing the cruelty of racial segregation. i had been resolutely denying the evident: the south had no intention of obeying the law of the land. that evening i acceded to the story and i saw: if white senators and white congressmen, white governors and white mayors would so openly and brazenly and willfully disobey the constitution, why couldn't the negro brazenly disobey laws that were un constitutional. if southern whites broke the law to uphold in justice, the negro had to break the law and uphold justice.
how ironic that in the late sixties president nixon was elected by decrying the breakdown in law and order. white people, northern and southern, saw their cities go up in flame and smoke as summer after summer, blacks took to the streets in blind fury, no more so than after my assassination. the flame and smoke could be seen from the white house. how hypocritical the outrage of white americans at what they considered a criminal disregard for law and order by blacks. law and order had broken down a decade before when southern elected officials encouraged and applauded defiance of the supreme court. the sixties were created by white people who thought their prejudices and bigotry were rights that had precedence over the constitution. their open defiance of the law as well as the refusal by other whites to decry that breakdown in law and order were what thrust me into a history i had always feared. what else would have motivated an alabama colored boy to learn greek and find a security in fifth century b.c. athens that he found nowhere in twentieth century america?
andrea and i knew i would be killed eventually and decided we should not have children. to be a widow was one kind of pain. to be an orphan was another entirely, she said. i agreed, but reluctantly. it was a decision i always regretted. by not having children we broke faith with the future. we also broke faith with each other.
around this time i saw a picture of jackie kennedy in the newspaper or a magazine. she was still the wife of the senator from massachusetts then but this was no ordinary politician's wife. she was young and she was beautiful and she was smiling a smile that had confidence in tomorrow. after that i looked for pictures of her in the paper and periodicals. jackie's smile gave me hope the world didn't have to be the way it was, that the world couldn't remain as it was in the face of that smile and confidence in what i didn't know but it gave me confidence too and i don't know if any of what happened in the sixties would have if not for jfk and the kennedy hair blowing in the wind on a sailing boat off nantucket, the spiral of a football in the autumn air on the white house lawn, the easy self-mocking sense of humor (something harvard men do better than anyone) and jackie's smile.
we are taught that history is powered by ideals and men and women of vision and greatness. not at all. what we remember is the jut of fdr's jaw, the uptilt of his cigarette in its holder, the air of command and easy confidence even from a wheelchair. what we remember of jack and bobby are the unruly hair, the free, open and boyish grins, the insouciant shine in the eyes giving them the sheen of eternal youth. camelot it was called because we all felt young and because we did, we partook of immortality and the surety we could do no wrong. it was a dangerous time.
i liked but never trusted either of the kennedy brothers. but we needed their exuberance and playfulness after the shock of the cold war, eisenhower, joe mccarthy.
social change does not occur when people suffer most acutely. totalitarianism works as long as a government has the stomach to impose terror every hour on the hour. a terrorized people can do nothing more than focus their attentions on recognizing and seizing an unguarded moment during the day. the psychological terror of segregation in the south was a totalitarianism that succeeded until jackie's smile and jfk's wit gave us hope that things could be different.
i remember my phone ringing early the evening of february 1, 1960. it was a monday. (in a few years I would look back with longing to that time when i could answer my own telephone.) it was a colleague from greensboro, north Carolina, telling me that four black students from north Carolina had sat down on lunch-counter stools at a variety store that afternoon and did not move when they were refused service. they had just been arrested.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "And All Our Wounds Forgiven"
Copyright © 2011 Julius Lester.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Lisa,
Chapter 2: Card,
Chapter 3: Andrea,
Chapter 4: Lisa,
Chapter 5: Andrea,
Chapter 6: Robert,