My name is Lydia Marchfield, and my father is the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the small town in Alabama where I live. I hate him more than anything else in the world.
Last week, they hanged Dennis Turner, the boy whose mother owns a little bakery just South of a narrow alleyway I sometimes pass if I’m taking the long way to school. I heard later that he had been accused of stealing a loaf of bread from a bakers’ – a white bakers’. I honestly didn’t believe that this was true, but my father does not reason with black people and their families. His job is to keep them down, to eradicate them. Not to discuss with them and hold fair trials.
I knew the family, in passing. It was more the fact that Dennis even existed – or rather, the colour of his skin existed – than the fact that he had actually done anything wrong. That was what horrified me the most, I think. And my mom! How could she bear to be seen with such a vile man as my father? Can she really have the disgust to lower herself to his level? Have any of them no better judgement at all?
It’s a Sunday – one week since Dennis was killed – and I can’t help but feel angry, sick, disappointed. For someone so young to suffer in such a brutal way is maddening. He had a mother, two sisters and a brother, a pet dog and a scholarship to the only University in the United States of America that catered for coloured people. I wasn’t close to them – mixing was forbidden by the Law of Alabama, i.e. Jim Cro laws. But I knew who they were, what kind of lives they led. I felt that way about most of the black population of town. I only wished that there was something, anything that I could do. But, as always, there wasn’t. There never is.
My anger had led me to treading the familiar path to the Greystone chapel, which was neither exclusive or inclusive of both blacks and whites. Anyone could go there, because it wasn’t really a working service chapel; it was really just a place for people to come to pray in time of need, to be used when anyone might need it. It was one of the very few places in town that the Jim Cro laws did not have an effect on. Anyone could go there, at any time.
Once I reached the chapel, it was deserted. This was perfect – I wanted to be alone. The rectangular room was familiar; the altar with its’ drape worn and torn, the metal stand which held tens of small tea lights, and one large white candle, burning brightly, the one used to light the rest. I come here every time something happens to any of those poor coloured people. Every time there is a lynching, I come here and pray for the family. It’s become a habit. It’s something I always do. I walked over to the stand of candles and reached for one. Then I took the large white candle and lit the wick, watching the flame dance for a moment. It was oddly comforting.
I then went to sit in one of the dusty pews, and I put the candle on the shelf in front of me, where the hymn books would usually sit. It was strange, the orange flame against the backdrop of the dark wood. I breathed deeply, remembering why I had come here. I let my eyes stare at the flame. I was doing this for the Turners. For their son. And for any other black families in our small but prejudice-ridden town. I closed my eyes, and uttered the first few words.
“Forgive, Father, those who have wronged you and those who have wronged others in their spiteful and cruel actions. I ask that you teach them the true cost of their actions...” I stopped, and drew a deep breath, trying to steady my trembling hands and torso. “on behalf of the suffering families they have wronged against.” There was now a sharp lump in my throat, and I fought hard to swallow it down. “I ask that you look after the Turner family, who have recently lost their eldest son to mob lynching here in this very town not last week. Give them support and show them guidance in their grief, and let them know that they need not be totally alone. Amen.”
It was all I could do, all I could ask for. It may not amount to much, but at least I had tried to do something for these people.
It took me a few moments to realise that tears were burning in my eyes. I took the candle from the shelf and held it up in front of my eyes. It flickered back and forth, the only movement in the otherwise still air other than the rapid rising and falling of my chest.
“D’you truly mean what you sayin’?” a soft voice from behind me said.
There was a distinct Southern accent, and the voice, I was definite, was female, and it was full of emotion.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and turned around to face whoever was behind me. Tears sprung to my eyes again when I recognised who it was that had spoken.
“D’you truly mean for the Lord to watch over us, like you were sayin’?” Mae Turner said, tears clouding her dark eyes. Then I grasped what she was talking about. She must have heard me praying.
“Yes” I replied. “I meant every word, Mrs. Turner” I swallowed hard. Then the face that was so lined with fear and grief and squalor broke into a tender smile.
“Why, thank you. It ain’t every day that a white girl should feel the need to ask the Lord for help over someone like us” Mrs. Turner said. And then, I was hit with an avalanche of new hope. Something fired me up inside, shunted the horrible visions of my father in the pointed white hood and the slums and the poor farmers in their poor fields. To my intense surprise, I smiled back at her.
“I’ve seen you before, I’m sure of it. What’s your name, darlin’?” she asked me, her dark eyes searching my face.
My heart sank like lead in a tank of water. Once she knew who I was, she would surely run away screaming. But did I have the courage to lie to a woman so deep in her suffering and grief?
“I’m Lydia” I said eventually. “Lydia...Marchfield” My jaw clenched, and I watched her sweet face twist with blank shock and horror. “I hate my father, Mrs. Turner. It’s not right, what they’re doing to you and your family, and all the other coloured people here. Believe me” I whispered. “I’m not like them”. And I really had to make her believe that, otherwise my attempts at protecting her family from further harm would be meaningless.
“No, I don’t believe you are” Mrs. Turner said quietly. “I knew you ain’t like them. I knew you care more than you should, but I’m still awful grateful” she explained. “Dennis would have been happy to know there are people like you in the world, Lydia”.
I got up from my seat in the pews and put the candle back on the metal stand. Then I went over to Mrs. Turner.
“I can help” I pleaded. “We can fight this...there’s always a way.” But Mae Turner shook her head.
“I’m afraid there ain’t, Lydia. There just ain’t no way you can stop them. No way at all” she said sadly.
“There always is, Mrs. Turner. There are other people like us, people who want change, people who want this to end as much as we do. We could do it for every black person in town, every black person in the South. We could do it for your son, Mrs. Turner” I answered, the new hope strengthening my voice.
It wasn’t a lie; there was people who could help. It wouldn’t be without difficultly. But we had to try. We wouldn’t know until we tried.
“If you think so, darlin’, then so be it” Mrs. Turner replied after a short while. My heart leapt at the thought of finally doing something to stop the terror, the horror, the fear and the discrimination. “My husband would sure love to hear about you, honey. He’d sure like to know that there was someone out there who cared a damn about us”.
And then she smiled once more, her dark eyes watery again, and then left the chapel, leaving me standing alone in the doorway, an autumn breeze wafting in through the open doors.