[written on the eve of the presidential election, 2016]
I remember voting day in Highland Park, in the early 1960’s. Momma would set out in the afternoon on the way to the polls, the three of us kids with her; our youngest sib wasn’t born yet. She’d take her hair out of curlers, or maybe she’d just had a visit to the House of Beauty on Woodward and Euclid – a veritable palace of pulchritude, her Get Ready place before going to see the Motown acts with my father and her sisters and brothers in law, at the 20 Grand Ballroom on the West Side.
As usual, we reveled in the rays of her beauty that shined on the neighbors too, as we walked on the way to vote (for if she voted, that meant we voted). Mama was slightly slew footed, enough, in her shell and capris, to rock her wide-hipped, small waisted walk from side to side. She was built like a Coke Cola bottle, my Daddy would say.
She sashayed with us in tow, and we turned from John R onto Massachusetts Street, past our neighbors homes; we all lived in big houses under canopies of elms. We passed Mr. Harvard, on the corner, who had made big auto inventions, side-by-side with Henry Ford, but got no fame because he was Colored. Tall and brown now, an older man, we kids had never seen him do anything except manicure his lawn, which he seemed to do constantly, with engineering exactitude.
Mrs. Ashford, my first grade teacher; her husband died and I thought her three girls, my friends, could not survive – I had never heard of a home without a father (but their fine brown mother married a few years later, thank you very much).
There was the sandy-headed Williams clan; the McKinneys, a musical family, every one. The Blackwells lived in the next block – their father looked White and he, a Republican (the party that freed the slaves) later became our Mayor. Down the street, the Lee’s were a handsome brown family, pretty caramel girls and the cutest boys in the world; their mother was a doctor, which was unheard of.
We were proud of our mother’s beauty, bashful in its shadow – I knew that some looked at me and wondered how I was her child, so light was she and me so brown. We walked behind her, playing, being kids; but also alert, trying to protect her against ……what? Whistles? Stares? Men who might steal her away from Daddy, leaving us to run home without her and have to explain to him where she had gone? But all she did was smile and wave as she walked by the jitneys and neighborhood men, like a sunflower turning towards the rays of the sun.
We got to the end of the Massachusetts block, and passed the home of the beauty shop lady, who did hair in her basement, in the days in which Black women mostly did hair, or cleaned houses. She was always so pleased at how her worked turned out on Mama – good advertising – and Mama reflected the admiration that came her way upon all those who gazed upon her.
We got to McGregor library, the center of the universe as far as I was concerned, an edifice that looked like the buildings in the pictures of the Greek Gods, and full of books and wonders.
On election day, neighbors in business suits and foundry coveralls gathered outside; it was a place of bunting and flags and straw boater hats of the campaigners, the red white and blue iconography the symbols of Americana, even in the years when the voters became mostly Black.
We marched to the side of the library, off of the alley, a special entrance for such a special day. When I was elementary school age, the women who worked at the polls were all White ladies, with bright smiles but tight eyes, girded for the lines of more colored people each year, arriving at the precinct to cast their ballots.
In later years, the women working the polls were increasingly Black too, as serious as the women on the Mother’s Board at church; housewives who lived in the amazing Arts & Crafts bungalows and mini-mansions of Highland Park that the Whites were leaving behind. There were union ladies – for the UAW had a stronghold in the working class prosperity of Highland Park. They all carried out their duties with a stern, bustling importance that terrified me, for the right to vote was dead serious to them, indeed.
Years later, in my thirties, I was a union lady myself, a union president in fact. One year, in about ’85, I was asked to go to South on a speaking tour. Seems there were those who wished to go back to the days of the 1950’s, to try to stop Black folks from voting. The leaders in their communities asked for help across the country, and I agreed to go down; it was the dues I had to pay for the life that I was blessed to lead.
I landed in Mobile Alabama, and gave a speech that first night in a barn on a hill, to the leaders of a co-operative of Southern Black farmers who had been organizing for fair treatment for decades. With no ambient urban sound, it was as quiet as a womb, and the first time that I had ever seen that dark, black dark of a Southern night.
It was a terrifying, yet comforting, star strewn dark, close as a blanket in the quivering heat, that made me understand for the first time, just how easy it had been to hide the evidence of terror and mayhem in the days of the bullwhip and the noose.
On that first day there, I dropped my self-righteous Northern activist judgment of the southern Civil Rights Movement, and got my mind right about what my people had had to do to survive.
Then onto Birmingham; where I was taken to speak at an old, one-room school house, wispy cobwebs in the corners, that doubled as a Sunday school. Later, another church where I had the honor of being asked to speak at the same pulpit where had once stood Dr. Martin Luther King.
Struck with the gravitas of the church and its history, as I climbed to the lectern, I suddenly didn’t know what to say. At 30, though I was a leader in my city, called “one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Detroit,” I was a mere child in the eyes of the deacons who greeted me, looking side-eyed at my flirtatious head-tossing and young Northern naiveté.
But, in an inspired instant, I started my speech by dropping the name of the Rev. C. L. Franklin and my father (Joe Von Battle), who had recorded all of Franklin’s albums in Detroit – and his young daughter Aretha’s first gospel songs – records played in Black Baptist homes throughout the North and South. The elders sat back and nodded their heads in approval of my now established provenance.
Then onto Selma, where I, unaccompanied, walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and then visited a tiny Civil Rights museum, run by a movement veteran, Rose Saunders. Then to Marion, Alabama in Perry County, where Albert Turner was – for the Blacks – the unofficial mayor and official leader of the community; for years, he had been a general at war. In the midst of the dignitaries who had scrambled to be at the front of the funeral cortège of Dr. M.L. King, he had chosen to walk on foot and lead the mule-team at the head of his beloved friend’s bier, an act of humility that hearkened to the days in the fields.
Dark and venerable, with a rubbery face, he led our incoming voting rights troops from the North from a mobile home in a clearing in the middle of trees and knee high grass. A bricklayer who was, of late, insurance man by profession, he wore a plastic pocket protector with lots of pens; his trailer’s office walls were covered in Black funeral home and insurance company calendars, flyers and office minutiae; a small business man’s clutter much like my father’s junk behind the record store counter.
I was stunned at the mundane arcana of Turner’s occupation – this venerated right hand man of Dr. M.L. King, spoken of in awed tones. I stuck close to him, and stayed at his knee for days soaking in his wisdom – and didn’t move, because I was terrified, afraid that I might face the fate of Emmet Till.
He was kindly and patient, nonplussed by the invasion of hapless Northerners like me, who were probably in the way, Black and White (perhaps a reason why I’m patient with new Detroit kids today). He wore giant, droopy glasses, the style for old men of the time, and spoke in a molasses drawl; every word he said had the import of centuries. He too, knew the work of my father and the coded messages he recorded of Rev. C. L. Franklin, making me puff up with pride at Turner’s high regard.
We visitors canvassed neighborhoods that were acres apart, through waist-high grasses, and stood up to nervous blue-haired poll workers as afraid of us as we were of being there. After a week, we were successful in witnessing the voting go forth, unimpeded, and I returned North, but changed.
Months later, I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the City of Boston’s official Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration, at historic Fanuiel Hall – I was told that I was the first Black Woman to speak in that hallowed place. At the podium, still pondering the lessons of my Southern visit, I meandered through my memories of that trip down South.
I remembered that dark, dark of Alabama; the old Black women who sat on their porches in the stifling heat, down the road a ways from city hall – a dusty white cupola’d building in a hot, dusty country square straight out of William Faulkner.
The women told stories, especially the one where their neighbor – Jimmie Lee Jackson – was shot dead right there – for trying to vote; they told these tales while they sat there in the blazing heat, on their porches talking softly, fanning, fanning. I recounted, this on the stage in Boston.
I didn’t know as the told me, if they were telling me this to test my mettle, or if it was true (yes, it was) but for me, it got really real. They weren’t sepia-toned photos in Jet magazine; they were women sitting in front of me who had seen the blood be shed from their front porches for the right to vote. I know it was the Blood...
I told the audience in Boston, how much I – flying into cities doing interviews, writing speeches in airport limousines – had been humbled at my realization of the relative comfort of my own activism, compared to that Southern reality. Marsha, just who do you think you are? I returned home from Boston, as from a confessional.
So, on each voting day, I think of my late, beautiful mother, and how proud we were to walk to the polls behind her pretty self, to watch her cast a vote once denied her mother and her mother’s mother and their mothers before.
I think of Albert Turner, who spent his life as a general in the war for the right to vote, and walked behind a clopping mule in Rev. King’s funeral procession.
I think of the old mothers, on their porches, as they sat there talking softly, fanning, fanning, with the memories of blood in their heads – and yet they voted.
Almost 30 years after I made that Southern visit, then later spoke in Boston, I saw online – Googling myself, of course – that a Jewish woman – of whom I’d never heard – had written a book about her travels through the world.
My name had – inexplicably – popped up here, and I, curious, clicked on the excerpt of her story – how, many years before, at Fanuiel Hall in Boston, she once heard a young Black woman named Marsha who was from Detroit, who made a speech about humility that had moved the author, taught her life lessons, changed her outlook in life.
In utter shock, I read on – the author said that this young woman talked about a trip to the South that she had made, and had been humbled meeting real people in the Civil Rights movement. The writer still remembered, after many years, that the young Black woman named Marsha repeated this refrain, “and they sat there talking softly, fanning, fanning.”
Marsha Music copyright 2016