I stood paralyzed as I witnessed the life escape the body of my baby daughter. Elsie, two years of age today, never truly embraced her age. She instead chose to embody a level of maturity that rivaled those of her own parents. She was honest, direct, accountable, and always kept her cool. Even as she knocked on death’s door, I felt she struggled to maintain her composure for the sake of her mother, Leona, who cradled her tightly in her arms. I watched as Leona whispered comforting words of endearment, as they sat on the floor in the corner of the emergency room.
On a normal day, Leona’s piercingly blue eyes, could be seen from the Mississippi. The eyes were no doubt a gift from her White grandfather — a farmer and former slave master. Her delicate soul radiates through her body producing a glow only reserved for the guardians above. I have often searched between the shoulder blades of her posterior for remnants of clipped wings as proof of the unearthly impression she leaves on helpless onlookers. But on this day, grief obstructs the spectrum of light emitting from the windows to her soul, leaving a muddled gray ironically reflective of the diminishing essence of the innocence in her arms. Leona’s obscured anguish capsulated into tiny vessels flowing down her mocha-toned skin. Her threadlike figure, woven into a nest holding her dying child, as she intermittently shuttered her eyes in prayer. Grief was not a stranger to my wife — it was more of a recurring nightmare she had struggled to escape her entire life. One cannot fight forever. As I watched my two girls on the floor, I knew more than one soul was dying that day.
This was our second visit today. We awakened to a muted darkness earlier this morning at our apartment, or more accurately: the dingy shack located above a convenient store on Raja Drive. Elsie, sandwiched in-between us on our single-sized bed, sat up moaning in pain. She complained of blurry vision and stomach aches, and then her body began to uncontrollably convulse. I recognized the symptoms as indicative of an epileptic seizure, as my late grandfather had suffered from the same throughout his life. We immediately rushed to the hospital, passing a “No Blacks” sign on our way through the ER entrance. Though we arrived within 5 minutes of her seizure, it took about 20 minutes before she was attended to. The doctor injected Elsie with valium, and 15 minutes later they put her in a wheelchair while an armed officer asked us to leave as “courtesy to incoming patients in need.”
Leona and I argued that morning as she exclaimed our ejection was an act of racism. I told her that I felt it was just capacity issues and they needed the space for incoming patients. I never choose to use my black skin as an excuse for difficult circumstances. Elsie was OK, so no harm done. I didn’t realize how wrong I was until Elsie became unresponsive only a few moments later.
We arrived back at the ER as Elsie faded in and out of consciousness. At the front desk was an unpleasant, lanky woman, with a face tattered with distinctive wrinkles suggestive of an existence of wretchedness. The sneering woman briefly lowered her spectacles and hissed that a staff member might be on the way soon. That was 30 minutes ago.
So, here we wait. My girls in one corner, contrasted against visitors in the other corner, by both color and distance. I could not hear a sound but the imagined dimming heartbeat of my daughter as I stood away conflicted within my own thoughts. I struggled between the aspiration of my people to reach a socio-economic level of parity, and the contradictory realities that exists all around us even as we roar into 1968.
I walked over to my daughter and gazed down. My wife took no more notice of me than the triage nurses gawking at us with subdued anxiety. As I crouched down, Elsie reached for my hand and muttered, “Am I going to Jesus?” I began to murmur an answer of consolation, mustering up enough valor to withhold a gulp of sorrow from my voice.
She spoke words too faint to understand, as her hand became too weak to maintain a grip. A minute later her head dipped slightly and her eyes closed for the final time. Her last breath occurred half past 11.
A Black man, seemingly a doctor owing to his white coat, rushed into the waiting area. “How long have you been here?” He asked. “I was just told about this emergency.”
“33 minutes and 15 seconds,” Leona replied with an abhorrent intonation, the like of which I have not heard spoken from her mouth. As I explained the situation and he examined her body, Leona’s refined eyebrows arched over the bridge of her dainty nose in unsullied antagonism.
He declared the most likely cause of death was a respiratory depression associated with the dose of valium Elsie had received that morning.
“Do you recall the doctor’s name? I’m not certain why he would administer such a drug at that dosage — nor can I comprehend the reasoning behind your subsequent removal from the hospital. She should have been monitored very closely. Please accept my deepest condolences — I just don’t know what to say —”
“Don’t say anything,” Leona interrupted as she walked away from her side, “it doesn’t matter.”
Her body was to be taken to John Gatson Hospital, with the county’s medical examiner, Dr. Jerry Francisco, to perform an autopsy. This would be the least note-worthy postmortem examination he would perform in the coming months.
Leona, with empty eyes, requested, “Dante, please take me home — you need to get back to work.”
I worked two jobs, freelance construction and sanitation. The former keeps the light on, and the latter maintains the grungy roof over our head. But, I endure. On a daily basis, I risk my own life via the unkempt truck peddled as up to standard by the Memphis Department of Public Works. Some days I need to burrow to the base of my inner recesses just to put food on the table. But, with strength of mind, I endure. I have been putting myself through community college and my graduation in late January is only a few weeks away. I can see the finish line.
But for me, and many others, this race — as it were — was far from over. According to the Department, the loss of a child is not an acceptable reason to miss a day of work. The long history of abuse and neglect has left the vast majority of disgruntled workers musing about the range of ethnicities applicable of such injustices. 1,300 Black men made up most of the collective of sanitation workers. My close friend and truck-mate, Robert Walker, was a good representation of the whole lot — or blame-buzzards, as I call them. Every day, his natter is full of hate for White men, and words full of excuses for his own circumstances. Bigotry, the scapegoat. The buzzards are limited in their vocational opportunities, no doubt attributable to their own self-defeating attitude. But, I was not like them. I had a way out.
Before his passing, my grandfather, Donald, connected me with an old friend of his, W. Preston Battle, a Memphis judge at Shelby County Criminal Court. They had developed a rapport while Battle studied at University of Memphis Law School — Donald was a janitor there. As an unpaid favor to Donald, after his passing, the dear judge sent me a letter offering his deepest condolences and pledging a position within his courtroom. Of course, there was a catch. I had to promise to attend college and get a degree. I accepted this challenge and gained acceptance to Lane College, a predominantly Black college, studying Criminal Justice. It goes without saying that ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ could not even begin to describe the torturous effort it took to balance this extra responsibility with meeting my family’s basic needs. Around Christmas time, about a month ago, I received another letter from the judge. This time it was a check for five hundred dollars, and a note accompanied it reading: “I imagine by now you have worked hard to get to your graduation day. Take this money on behalf of your family that has had to bear through your tough times. I won’t be able to attend your graduation, but be sure to be at my office the following Monday morning, first thing.”
The truth of the matter is that he never really verified if I was, in fact, still in school. We hadn’t spoken in almost a year. We never even met in person. He just knew, and trusted, that I was.
Graduation day. As it was February, this was an early commencement designated for those few individuals who could not afford the standard spring service. I managed to convince Robert to cover for me on my last day of work by substituting another worker in my place. Leona, of deceptively good spirit as of late, sat with a smile in the undersized audience that Thursday afternoon. She wore a black dress, blue eyes shimmering in spite of the absence of sunshine, and lips colored a shade of dusty crimson.
The speaker, seemingly a last-minute addition from the bottom of the totem pole, began his speech as the clouds darkened and drizzle pattered on the top of our caps. He was soon interrupted by the Dean as he arose from his seat behind the podium and whispered in the speaker’s ear.
With a pause, the speaker spoke, “I’m sorry to announce the passing of two of our cities’ noblest men. Echole Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by their sanitation truck. It unfortunately malfunctioned, and the pair did not survive.” The crowd erupted in dismay. He continued, “please let this ceremony be in remembrance of them and their families.”
That could have been me. It was supposed to be me. I couldn’t help but wonder if my sudden good fate was somehow twisted justice for the premature loss of my dearest darling. I turned towards Leona, whom happened to be close friends with the wives of both Robert and Echol, and noticed she was missing from her seat.
A couple of days later, Leona informed me of the buzz brewing of a worker’s strike at the plant. The recent deaths had triggered a chorus of disapproval from several organizations, mainly from T.O. Jones and Jerry Wurf of the worker’s union. They made several unanswered demands to City Hall for worker safety and decent wages. My wife, hardly the activist, unpredictably seemed enthralled with the developments, which have now captured the attention of the head-buzzard-in-charge, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More importantly, he was Leona’s hero, and the primary catalyst for her rebirth back into the cognizant world. I was OK with anything that gave her purpose, again.
“Court clerk,” Judge Preston said, as I sat across his desk Monday morning. “You’d be the first Black clerk around here. Probably in all of Tennessee,” he said, shuffling some papers on his desk. He was a stern, yet benevolent man of very few words. His homely, stout appearance looked curiously out of place juxtaposed upon the velvety décor and effervescent lighting of his orderly office.
Already famous in the state for presiding over several headline trials, it was clear he kept his office, and courtroom, a well-oiled machine.
He continued, “so clearly we’d have to take some precautions and set some ground rules with the staff.”
“I have one question,” I began reluctantly, “what was the favor you owed my grandfather?”
Staring at me for the first time, he replied “Donald took the blame for possession of a jar of whiskey I drank in the bathroom of the Law school. It got him fired from his janitorial position. I asked him later on why did it, and you know what he said to me?” he rhetorically asked, with a stern glare. “Sin boldly to find the path of God. Happiness is about the love that you don’t keep in.”
His secretary entered the room, as he continued, “He’d rather save a bright future in hopes that I could save another when my time came. I promised him that I would. And now I have. Get out of my office and get to work.”
I was able to work a single job now that I earned a good wage. And over the next couple of weeks the light in Leona’s eyes, once present in abundance, had returned. She hailed my accomplishments to all of her friends and started attending church again. In addition, she became more involved in the escalating turbulence surrounding the Memphis sanitation workers. The NAACP recently backed a resolution supporting a strike, and Leona was an active member in coordination efforts.
As I walked on North 2nd Street towards the Shelby County Courthouse, the lanes were flooded with protesters, primarily of sanitation workers and college students. It was the first day of the strike — but more importantly, it was my first payday. As I walked past the buzzards, I just kept pondering the amazing things these people could alternatively be doing with their time and energy. My wife, now a full-blown buzzard, participated in the coordination of the strike. 1,300 men made getting to work fairly difficult, but as I approached Adams Avenue, the sweet smell of perseverance recaptured my resolve. I wore navy blue suit coupled with cobalt-blazoned shoes, and no buzzard was ruining my stride to work that morning.
I got to my desk and there were two envelopes awaiting me amidst the organized chaos of court documents pending review and processing. I opened the first envelope and it was a letter, reading: “We thank you for your service, and hereby notify you of your termination of employment from the Shelby County Criminal Court.” The second envelope contained my paycheck. I immediately walked to the Judge’s office and walked inside.
“Why?” I forcefully inquired.
“Dante, I tried to get the others to accept the situation, but my wife received a death threat last weekend and I can’t risk it. I can’t have your circumstances disrupting my courtroom,” he said, as I shuddered at the color of my skin now being classified as a circumstance. “There are serious cases that need our undivided attention. It’s a delusion to think that everything is permanent, or fair. I hope you’re able to bounce back, as I know that you can.”
Broken, both will and hope, I got up from the chair to leave. On my way out, the judge exhaled, “Mr. Elliot, always remember that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I shut the door on my way out.
My two-week tenure was an unconscionable reality too difficult to bear or reflect. I walked back home through the crowd of protesters, their heads raised higher than mine, and fervor burning deeper than my disdain for the iniquity of it all. I couldn’t decide if I was angry at them anymore, or myself.
A month later, on the 28th of March, I approached a dumpster behind the church near my apartment building. I was worn out from heavy lifting at the construction job which I had begged and literally paid a “time lost” fee to get back. Sweating and irritable, I grabbed and extracted the contents of a black garbage bag I had stashed in a hole in the wall covered by the dumpster. There was a much larger protest of about 22,000 students and sanitation workers, and I chose to enter the church for some peace and quiet before heading home.
I went to a corner of the empty church near the confessional to open the large bag. It was my favorite, and only, navy suit and dress shoes. The guilt of adorning this costume every day after work produced a stench worse than my actual smell of sweat and destitution. I began to change clothes, and I heard a sudden bang on the church doors. Police sirens blazed through the streets, and loud screams of people reverberated off the walls. Sensing the danger, I quickly jumped inside a confessional booth, slouching in its darkness. Sounds of the doors of the church thumped at my ear drums as they slammed open.
A man raucously commanded, “Enter the church! You’ll be safe in the church!”
I heard the clamor of several footsteps within the walls of the church. I slowly stood up in the booth, and peeked through small slits wide enough to witness the disarray. I counted 20 black children no more than 10 years of age, and several adults — bloodied and scared — holding the doors shut. Suddenly, the doors busted open and policemen infiltrated God’s walls with several canisters of tear gas, clubbing the disarmed people as they gasped for air. The only words I could gather from the protectors of the innocent that day was “beat that monkey!” I wept inside that booth far long after the tear gas had worn off. After the beating, the adults were arrested, and kids left within the pews and hallways of the supposed sanctuary. From a distance, many of their faces resembled Elsie, and yet, as with my fallen angel, all I could do was watch in obscurity.
I went home that night, in full costume, greeted by the loving hug and kiss from my wife.
“How was your day, Mr. Clerk?” She teased, pointing me towards the candlelight dinner arrangement in the dimly-lit corner of the room.
“Work was good. Judge Preston is a good man,” I muttered, with my last ounce of remaining spirit. Recollection of the abused children terrified the forefront of my mind, and the disgrace of the mirage I paraded daily to my angel haunted the rest of it. “I need to get to work extra early tomorrow,” I continued, an honest lie indeed.
“Mayor Loeb declared martial law after that riot today,” she injected, “I hear they are bringing in thousands of troops from the National Guard.”
“I’m surprised King let it get that violent,” I jabbed.
“Obviously it wasn’t his fault, the crowd got out of hand.”
“A lot of things get out of hand when all you do is protest and complain all day,” I retorted, “None that had to happen today. If I could just meet him-”
“Well, you won’t,” she interrupted, “He’s out there making a difference, fearlessly fighting for and uniting our people.” She paused, gripping the plate in her hand, and whimpered, “he could have saved my baby. If he was there, he would have demanded a doctor — he would have.” Entering the bedroom, she slammed the door behind her.
The following Thursday evening, after another hard day of work, I walked aimlessly lost in my sorrowful thoughts.
“Lord, why me?” I spoke aloud, toting the familiar black garbage bag containing the lie I had now been faithfully wed to. I found myself on Mulberry Street, talking to myself when my knees suddenly became weak and I dropped to the ground. On my knees, I peered at the clouds. “Please, somebody talk to me. Elsie, are you watching me? I’ve failed you. I failed doing what was right, while that buzzard is all parades the country encouraging us to feel sorry for ourselves. I wish I could tell him how his dream isn’t working. I’d let him know how much he’s hurting us.”
I glanced upward, and noticed a familiar face and figure of a man appear on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel across the street. I stopped movement, taken aback from the manifestation of the very entity I reproached for so long. Dr. King stood there on the second floor, as another familiar face, Rev. Billy Kyles walked down the steps of the walkway connecting the second floor rooms. As King stood there, I realized this was my chance.
As I crossed the street, I gathered enough gallantry to make my introduction. I began, “Dr —“ as a loud blast interposed. A voice from the car of men awaiting King at street level grumbled, “Which car backfired?” Unfortunately, I was aware of the true magnitude of the recent occurrence, as I witnessed the impact of the shot thump against King’s face. He fell to the floor of the balcony, as several men, including myself, rushed up the stairway.
Kyles called an ambulance as an undercover cop, Marrell, tried to stop the bleeding with a towel. There he was, right in front of me, with a large yawning wound coating his right jaw. I could not see the man that I hated anymore. I could not even see a man holding on to his life. All I saw was the dying essence of hope.
I’m still unsure as to what I would have said to him. If I would have told him off, or praised him for having the courage I never did. If it was a delusion I employed, or the product of injustice.
I walked inside my apartment, news of the assassination still not broadcasted. With mind clearer, and soul seeking decontamination, I was going to tell her the truth about everything.
As I approached her on the couch, she pointed at my impoverished garments and asked, “What happened to your suit?”
I began, “I have something to tell you,” as I became awestruck by her beloved angelic glow. She was listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio, seemingly the trigger of her good spirits and radiant shimmer of her blue eyes.
“What is it?” she asked.
At that moment, I finally understood the message Judge Preston tried to tell me. I replied, “Nothing. It’s getting cleaned.” Sometimes delusions are necessary to our happiness.
• Medical Examiner, Dr. Jerry Francisco, performed the autopsy of Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly after his death
• Judge W. Preston Battle eventually administered the trial of the accused murderer, James Earl Ray. He sentenced Ray to a 99-year sentence, shortly before dying of a heart attack at age 60 at his desk at Shelby County Criminal Courthouse. Several letters were found littered near his body on the desk.
• Dante received an envelope the following day.
O.C. Ezeadi is an aspiring author of fiction, including historical, mystery, and suspense. He is part of several writing organizations and is working on his first novel. By day he is a finance manager at Novo Nordisk.