Through Angels Eyes
A survival story from the civil rights movement's most explosive time and place: Birmingham, 1963.

ALABAMA, MAY 5 1963.

This is a preview to the chapter ALABAMA, MAY 5 1963. from the book Through Angels Eyes by Steve Theunissen.
Please note this text is copyright protected.

I woke to the sound a' my name. I was starin' into Amie's face. She had my head cradled in her arms 'n was wipin' my brow with a wet cloth.

"She's awake," Amie called out.

Two other girls came runnin' over.

"How you feeling, Angel?" a girl 'bout eighteen, who I didn't recognize, asked me.

"My arm hurts," I whispered.

"How 'bout your head?"

"No, that's okay."

I remembered the pain I felt in my head before I blacked out. I tried reachin' my hand up to feel if the side a' my head was still there. But my arm wasn't workin'. Jus' tryin' to lift it up caused me to wince.

"That arm's broken. We better fix some kinda splint," the older girl said. Her 'n the other girl went off then, in search a' somethin' they could use as a brace.

As my full sense came back to me, I was able to take in my surroundings. I was lyin' on the floor of a basketball court. Lookin' 'round, I figured that we must be in some kinda school. But it weren't like no school I ever seen before. This place was new lookin', the hoops had nets on 'em 'n in the corner I could make out some pole vaultin' gear. It could only mean one thing. We was in a White school's gym. The place was overflowin' with Black kids, all still drippin' wet from their run in with those fire hoses.

"What we doin' here?" I asked Amie.

"Angel, we're in prison," she said, smilin' at me. "See, the real prisons got filled, so's they had nowhere else to put us."

That brought a smile to my face, too. To punish us, ol' Bull Connor'd put us in a place we'd never get to see any other time. We weren't good enough to use these facilities. But it was okay to lock us up in here. Somehow that didn't make no sense to me. Then I remembered that Jimmy'd told me once that one a' the goals a' non-violent resistance was to fill up the jails—to have so many bodies that the police didn't know what to do with us. Well, we'd certainly done that. Maybe, now we had ol' Bull Connor on the ropes. My mind took me back to the demonstration.

"How'd I survive that beatin', Amie?"

"Didn't you see that brother who saved you?"

I shook my head.

"Listen, Angel," Amie said as she ran her hand over the dried blood that'd matted into my hair, "This skinny White fella began takin' to you with his boot. It was then that I saw Hattie Milton start runnin' over to ya. But before she got there, a Black man'd got through the crowd 'n grabbed onto that White man. Before anyone could stop him, he'd pulled a knife 'n was slashin' it at that White fella."

"What happened after that?" I asked, amazed at what I was hearin'.

"Well,I think he cut that White fella twice before the crowd got that knife offa him. Then the cops came over 'n began arrestin' all a' us. They let us care for you, but we was all forced into a wagon."

"What 'bout the man with the knife?"

"Las' I saw three cops had him on the ground."

"Do ya know who he was?"

"I never seen him before," Amie replied as she began pickin' bits a' dried blood outta my hair. "But on the way over here in the police van, somebody told me who he was."

She stopped workin' on my hair now 'n looked me full in the face.

"You know that strange kid in our class?" she asked me. "That Reeby kid?"

As I nodded I felt a sinkin' feelin' inside a' me.

"Well, someone told me that guy who saved you was that Reeby kid's father."

I took a deep breath: Josiah's father. I noticed Josiah wasn't a part a' the march. He musta' decided against it, not wantin' to give his daddy reason to bring violence into our peaceful protest. Yet, he'd done it anyway. Not to protect his son. No, to protect me. As I lay there thinkin' bout how crazy all a' this had got, I closed my eyes. It was then that I realized how exhausted I was, 'n before long I drifted back to sleep.

* * *

On Sunday afternoon they let us outta that gym prison. All mornin' we'd seen the vans pullin' up outside in the parkin' lot, bringin' more 'n more child protestors to jail. By two a'clock the gym was full to overflowin'. They simply had to let some of us out to make way for the next wave.

In a strange way, I was kinda sorry to be leavin'. The atmosphere in that place had been more like a sleepover party than a prison. Even though I couldn't move 'round much on account a' my injuries, I still made some new friends in there. Kids was comin' up to me, congratulatin' me for what I done out on the street. One girl said that when she saw me protectin' Amie like I did, it gave her strength to put up with that firehose 'n not cry out. They talked like I was some kinda hero for doin' what I did. That made me feel good—made me feel special. An' it made that horrible pain in my arm seem worth it.

So, we filed outta that place, past the policemen who was guardin' the doors 'n out onto the playin' field. My arm'd been braced up 'n fixed in a sling that held it close to my chest. As I looked out across the field, adjustin' my eyes to the burnin' sun, I noticed twenty or thirty figures on the grass way off in the distance. At the sight of us, they got up 'n started our way. I shaded my eyes to see if I could make 'em out. Then I recognized Miss Hattie. She was half runnin' towards us, along with what I guessed musta been the families a' some a' those other kids. When I spotted her, I called out to her, then began runnin'. We met in the middle a' the field. She threw her arms 'round me, pullin' me close, squeezin' me into her belly. We hugged like that for over a minute, neither one of us wantin' to let go. I remembered back to that time I pounded down her door late at night 'n we'd hugged each other jus' like this. I felt that same safety now, that same closeness to this ol' woman. She was whisperin' in my ear.

"I'm so proud a' you, Angel," she said.

"I'm glad ya came, Miss Hattie," I replied.

"Told you I'd be there when it counted, girl," she smiled as we loosened our grip on each other 'n made our way to the edge a' the field.

We walked in silence for a while. Then, as we got outta the school grounds 'n onto the street, Miss Hattie began tellin' me 'bout how my Daddy 'n Mama was real worried 'bout me. I hadn't told 'em what I was up to yesterday. Instead, I fed 'em another lie 'bout playin' over at Amie's place.

"I went to see them, Angel."

'You did what?' I remembered how Mama'd warned Miss Hattie offa me that time.

"Last night. I had to let 'em know what'd happened to you."

"How'd they react?" I could jus' picture Mama abusin' Miss Hattie again.

"Well, like I said, they was worried 'bout you. But you know what? After we'd talked some, 'n your Daddy'd told me 'bout what he'd heard from Doctor King, he said he could see that what was happenin' here was different than in our day. An' he agreed that you'd done what was right—what he'd expect a' his child, he'd said." She looked down into my eyes now. "Actually, he was real proud of you when I told him how you'd saved that other girl."

"What 'bout Mama?" I noticed that Miss Hattie hadn't mentioned her in all a' this.

"She was worried too." I could tell Miss Hattie was searchin' for the right words. "But, you know, Angel, she don't see things quite the same. Reckons things ain't never gonna change. But you remember that advice I gave you a while back 'bout steppin' into other people's shoes?"

"Sure I do."

"Well, your mothers' had a rough time of it, girl. Ain't surprisin' she's become bitter."

"What happened to make Mama like that?" I asked.

"Angel, it ain't my place to tell you that."

"Please, Miss Hattie?" I begged her. "I need to know why Mama's so angry all the time."

Miss Hattie didn't answer for a minute. When she finally spoke, it was slow 'n deliberate.

"Her own daddy got killed Angel. Your grand-daddy."

"I know he got killed," I said.

"Did you know that he died right in your mother's lap? That she saw the whole thing?"

I didn't answer.

Miss Hattie gave me a minute to take that in before she spoke again.

"Best way for her to deal with that is to shut it out," she said. "But all a' this is bringin' it back to her."

"Poor Mama!" I whimpered.

Miss Hattie looked down at me now, grabbin' my good hand.

"Well, enough a' that," she said, squeezin' tight. "Anyway, I had a gentleman visitor this morning. I believe you know him."

"Uh huh," I said, only half payin' attention. My mind was still on Mama.

"A Mister Jackson. Believe his first name is Ronald."

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Had I heard that properly?

"What'd you jus' say, Miss Hattie?"

"You heard me, girl. Ronny Jackson came to see me this morning. 'Bout ten a'clock, in fact."

I forgot 'bout Mama completely now. Ronny? Visitin' Miss Hattie?

"What for?" I blurted out.

"For you, girl."

"What do ya mean, Miss Hattie?"

"He was real worried 'bout you, Angel. Heard that you'd been hurt. Actually, he was angry at first. Told me that he felt like goin' out and findin' that fireman who'd been pickin' on you."

"He did?" I felt that familiar excitement rushin' through me that I couldn't explain but that always came now when I thought 'bout Ronny.

"Sure he did, Angel."

We'd carried on walkin' now, still hand in hand.

"But he actually talked himself out of it. Spoke about a fella called Bevel he'd listened to."

So, it was Ronny at that meetin' the other night.

"What else did he say?" I wanted to know everythin'.

"That he cares for you, Angel. That he's confused. That he don't know which way to jump."

"What'd you tell him, Miss Hattie?"

"Told him that we've had too many generations a' hatred, Angel. Told him that what we need now is a bit of love."

"Did he agree with you?" I asked, the hope risin' in my voice.

"Well, sorta," she smiled.

"What'd he say?"

She looked down on me, her eyes beamin' into mine.

"Said he loved you, girl."

I felt myself blushin' then. We'd walked on for some time when I asked, "Did you like him, Miss Hattie?"

"I liked him right fine, girl," she smiled, squeezin' my hand again.

* * *

When I got to school on Monday, everyone'd heard 'bout what'd happened to me. Kids who normally never spoke to me was comin' up 'n congratulatin' me on what I done. They looked at my arm, still in that bed sheet sling, wantin' to see where it was broke 'n asked me if I had stitches in my head. Throughout all a' this, Ronny'd sat back at his desk, with his arms folded, takin' it all in. He hadn't said boo to me yet.

A crowd of 'em was still gathered 'round my desk when Mister Newton walked in. As they made their way over to their seats, I noticed that Mister Newton had some newspapers in his hands. When the class'd settled down he began readin' from one of 'em.

"The shame of Birmingham," he read.

Then he passed that paper to the kid in the seat closest to him 'n picked up the next paper:

"Courageous children fight injustice."

Again he passed the paper to one a' the kids 'n picked up another. As the papers began makin' their way 'round the class, I heard my name bein' whispered by some a' the kids. Then, when one a' those papers finally got to me, I couldn't believe what I saw. For there, right under that screamin' headline, was a photograph that took up half the page. On one side a' the picture was a fireman wearin' a dark jacket with the letters B.F.D on it. In his hands, he held a hose with water gushin' across the page. On the other side a' the page, huddled up in the fetal position on the ground, the water smashin' into her was a little Black girl—an' that little Black girl was me.

I looked up at the top a' the page: The Washington Post. Then another paper was passed to me: The Los Angeles Times. This time, under the words DAY OF SHAME, was four pictures—the same one a' me along with three similar ones. The picture in the bottom left caught my eye. My mind raced back to that day. I remembered that girl a' no more than eight or nine who'd been too slow to drop down. There she was, fear written all over her face, the water drillin' into her body, an arm reachin' up to pull her down.

Mister Newton passed 'round five papers in all. Then he went on to explain to us what it meant. He said what'd happened over the weekend had been a wake-up call for the nation. He said that those pictures, splashed across the country's papers, was jus' what we needed to force change. The millions a' decent people who woke up this mornin' 'n opened their paper over bacon 'n eggs would finally see what'd been goin' on down here. An' then things'd have to change. His words had a familiar ring to 'em. I remembered how Daddy'd said somethin' similar at the dinner table once, 'n how Miss Hattie'd told me how we had to force peoples' dulled consciences to sit up an' take notice. I looked back at that copy a' The Washin'ton Post, still lyin' on my desk. At that moment I felt like we could do anythin'.

* * *

It was Thursday evenin' an' I was lyin' on my bed, thumbin' through Jimmy's book 'bout Mahatma Gandhi. My arm was still in the brace those two girls'd made for me when we was locked up in that school gym. So, I held the book up with jus' my good hand. I had a feelin' like I really should be readin' this book, but it was so thick, an' the words so small, that I jus' couldn't work up the appetite for it. So, I was happy to jus' flick through an' read the odd bit here an' there that caught my eye.

I jus' started readin' a bit on page 173 'bout how the Indians in South Africa decided to burn their pass cards when I heard the door slam downstairs an' Jimmy's voice echo through the house. It wasn't the way Jimmy normally sounded—all calm an' soft spoken. This voice was shaky an' high-pitched. A second later Daddy's powerful voice drowned Jimmy out.

"Calm down, boy!" he almos' yelled at my brother.

I knew somethin' was wrong—somethin' terrible. I tossed the book on my bedside table an' headed downstairs. Jimmy was sittin' at the kitchen table, an' from the stairs, I could see him shakin'. I decided to keep my distance, so I sat down on the stairs. Daddy came in from the lounge room an' sat across from Jimmy. Mama was at the sink.

"Whats' goin' on, son?" Daddy asked. I hadn't heard him sound so carin' towards Jimmy for a long while. He must've known this was serious, too.

Jimmy wiped the beads a' sweat from offa his forehead, then looked Daddy in the eyes. From where I sat, I was able to see straight into Jimmy's eyes. The look I saw was one I never seen before from my brother. It was the look of a scared little boy pleadin' for his Daddy to protect him.

"It's the Reeby boy, Daddy!" he finally said.

"What's happened to Josiah, Jimmy?" The words was mine. I didn't mean to speak 'em out loud an' when I did they was shaky an' nervous.

Jimmy's eyes shot up towards me, then immediately they focused on the floor in front a' him.

"'Bout half an hour ago," he said, slow an' in control now, "we cut him down from the Chester Road bridge. He'd been hangin' there for over three hours."

Jimmy's words was like thick black curtains closin' in on my mind. A feelin' a' darkness came over me as an uncontrolled, "NOOOO!" escaped from my throat.

"Get that girl to her room," Daddy ordered.

Mama was up to me in an instant. She hugged me close, then took me off to my room. By the time we got there, I had broken into a sobbin' cry.

"Hush, girl," Mama soothed me as she helped me onto my bed.

"Not Josiah, Mama," I cried, not wantin' to accept it. 'He weren't no part of this."

What Mama said next shocked me, but in a way it also helped bring me back to my senses.

"He was Black, girl. That's as far as those White animals bother to look!"

"When's it gonna end, Mama? How many more Josiah's have to die?"

"Girl, it ain't gonna end. White folks been killin' us for no reason since slave days. That's the way it is. An' girl, don't matter how often you get your arm broke or how many a' those Doctor Kings you have marchin' 'round causin' a fuss. Ain't gonna do nothin'."

I didn't want to hear this. Not now.

"Mama," I said, "I jus' gotta get me some sleep."

"All right, girl. Try not to think 'bout what happened."

I did try—real hard. But I failed real bad. The image a' quiet, shy Josiah Reeby, the boy with the dead eyes, swingin' off a' the Chester Road bridge haunted me long into the night. Finally, somehow, I managed to drift into a troubled sleep.

* * *

I woke to a touch to the side a' my face. My eyes flickered open to see Jimmy standin' over me.

"Hi, Angel," he said.

"Hi, Jimmy," I half yawned, pullin' up the sheet to cover my eyes from the light that was streamin' in through the window.

Jimmy sat on the bed beside me. He held my hand in his. "It's all right, Angel eyes," he said. I wasn't sure if he was tryin' to comfort himself or me.

"I know it is," I said. "But, Jimmy, it's so hard."

"I know, baby. Anyway, here's somethin' I wanted to show you."

He handed me a crumpled piece a' paper. I looked down at it, immediately recognizin' Josiah's messy printin'.

It simply read, JOHN 16:33

"We found it in Josiah's pocket," Jimmy explained.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"Check it for yourself," he said.

I jumped outta my bed an' went over to the shelf that had my small collection a' books. I grabbed my Bible an' flipped open to the book a' John, chapter sixteen an' verse thirty three. I quickly read it to myself then looked over at my brother.

"Read it for me, Angel," he said.

As I began to read it again a lump formed in my throat an' I had to stop half way to wipe a tear from my cheek:

"In the world you are havin' tribulation. But take courage—I have conquered the world"



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