The Liberator of East Texas By Patti Griffith East Texas, 1966 As soon as there was a crowd outside the church across the street Austin turned the volume up as far as it would go and set the arm on the waiting record. It was too cold to start at the first and he cursed under his breath as it began. . . freedom . . . oh, freedom . . .” He saw his mother standing on the church steps glance toward him, but he looked away and leaned back, moving his legs so that his feet blocked his view of her. “Before I’d be a slave .. . I’d be buried in my grave. . . .” By the time the record began the second time she was talking to Nettie Daniels in front of the house. He made a crack between his two feet propped on the porch rail and looked at her. She was a strong, heavy woman. That’s how they think of her in Sulphurwoods, Austin thought, a strong, hard-working, dependable commodity. A big Bab-0 machine. He looked back to the others, waiting anxiously for someone to react to the music. Finally a few people waved at him. They waved like they would any other time and he knew then most of them didn’t know a freedom song when they heard one. He might as well have played the Supremes. Inconspicuously he lowered the volume with his left hand before his mother walked up the steps, passed him, and slammed the screen door. There was a click as she disconnected the extension cord and the record groaned to a stop. For good measure he got up and kicked the pink pelican on the screen door and sat back down. His mother was not interested in progress. She was satisfied to slave all week cleaning house after house, watch television weeknights, spend Saturday nights gossiping in Nettie Daniels’ beauty shop, and then repent \(of God knows Meanwhile there was a running monologue about the Lord and sin and suffering when the real sin was going on across the highway in the paved section The author, a native of De Kalb, Tex., near the Texas-Arkansas border, lives with her husband in Washington, D.C. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine. This fall, Simon & Schuster is scheduled to publish her first novel, The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. 10 The Texas Observer THE TEXAS THAT WAS of town and the suffering had nothing to do with God but rather with the people spinning around those paved streets in their air conditioned cars. He had tried to explain how things could be better if she and her friends would just wake up to progress but she couldn’t seem to imagine any scheme except a big white God sitting up there in his white kimono scheduling deaths, births, trials, and retributions. She’s had a hard life, of course, with his father running off and his brother getting blown up by a mine in Korea just after he made corporal and had had his picture in the paper. But there was no reasoning with her. When he tried to talk about progress she’d just call him a troublemaker and they’d shout at one another. Only once when he talked to her of his plans had she been sensible. He was the same as his father, she’d said. He was never happy or satisfied and his father had brought trouble to them all. She had talked quietly and reasonably as if with that one memory she had been granted understanding. He realized later that it might be the only thing that mattered enough for her to examine sanely. Now she came out the door barefooted and still buttoning the old house dress split across one breast and unzipped along the side, and let herself fall wearily into the chair beside him. She waved to a neighbor already starting to the movie and then sat silently looking out at the road she’d walked every day of her life except for the two times she gave birth. When she sighed heavily Austin knew she was thinking of his lost job and wanted him to know. But all she would say was, “Austin, what you doing in that football jersey with this heat?” THAT NIGHT Austin sat at the kitchen table writing two letters. The first was addressed to Brother Carlton Smith in Dallas. “Dear Brother Carlton, I saw on the Texas News program where you led members of your congregation in picketing segregated movie houses and restaurants in Dallas, so I am writing to you as a fellow civil rights worker. Sulphurwoods needs a civil rights worker bad. It is about as backward a town as can be imagined in the year 1965, that is outside Mississippi and Alabama, and I think it’s time we had some progress here. “In addition to that I have just been fired from my after school job of five years at the local Piggly Wiggly for no good reason except I wore a civil rights button to work. What can I do? I need my job. “Apathy pervades our community. In fact all is apathy except me. How can I start a movement? “Yours for a free East Texas, Austin Clark.” To the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department he wrote: “Dear Mr. Attorney General: I realize that you may hand this letter down to an assistant and that’s all right. I know that you don’t have enough men to check every wide spot in the road. \(The population of So I thought it my duty to report our local situation. “First of all, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been violated by Mr. James S. Robinson toward Austin Clark without cause, Austin Clark from his job of five years. As I know this department is very busy I will spare you the details, which I’ll explain to an investigator if you’ll send one. \(Since Sulphurwoods doesn’t have street numbers, have him ask for directions to the Bethlehem community and anyone there can tell him America, Austin Clark.” When two weeks passed and Austin received no reply he began making plans of his own. “Listen, Ernestine,” he said one night. “I didn’t write those letters just ’cause of me losing my job. I know that don’t amount to much, but this town’s gotta start somewhere and I’m the only one ’round here that seems to have progress in his vocabulary. Some people don’t care and some people remember them people gettin’ water hoses turned on ‘m in Marshall.” “Gawd, Austin, that was ten years ago!” Ernestine said impatiently. “If people ’round here’s still scared from that, progress might as well pack up and move on to another town. … But they ain’t scared; they interested in other things. Like you and me oughta be interested in gettin’ married for instance. Like you used to be interested in.” Austin moved over to the porch swing where she sat, put his arms around her firm body, and forgot progress for a minute. He loved to hold Ernestine quiet and still. His whole sexual history had been one of wrestling and twisting and pushing and clutching until he started dating Ernestine and had found some peace.
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