Here’s the first chapter of my upper-middlegrade novel, Mr. Touchdown, about the desegregation of a Southern high school in 1965. Hope you enjoy it!
C H A P T E R 1
A 15-year-old gray Ford hummed down Highway 61 heading southout of
Memphis, Tennessee. The Mississippi River rolled by a fewmiles to the west. If the two Negro men in their dark suits and hatshad kept driving the bullet-nosed 1950 Ford a few miles farthersouth, they would have dropped down from the bluffs around Memphison to the flat Mississippi Delta that stretched dead flat for hundredsof miles, a rich land of cotton and soybeans. Well, rich in someways. The soil was rich, a few white folks were rich, but most peoplewere poor in the Delta.But the two men turned left off of Highway 61 onto ChickalissaRoad, a two-lane paved road that cut between wide fields. Far off inthe shimmering June heat they caught glimpses of bent figures choppingcotton.
A mile or so down the road, the old Ford turned right ata small red brick church onto a narrow dirt street.In the middle of that street, Eddie Russell and his best friend, VernellCunningham, were throwing a football back and forth. Schoolhad been out just long enough for them to start to get bored. Theywatched the unfamiliar car ease off the paved road, raising a cloud ofyellow dust. The dirt street was barely wide enough for the car. Thetwo men inside stretched their necks looking for house numbers thatweren’t there. The neighborhood was better than a lot of Negroneighborhoods; most of the houses were painted, but they didn’t havenumbers. Everybody knew where everybody else lived.Eddie watched the car coming toward them, then raised his eyebrowat Vernell, who shook his head. He didn’t know them either.The bullet-nosed car inched closer to where they stood, between Vernell’shouse and Eddie’s Aunt Hattie’s house.Eddie threw the football hard into Vernell’s chest. Vernell caughtit and fired it onto his porch, making his sister and her friends in theporch swing shriek.The car stopped, nearly touching Eddie’s knees. He moved aroundto the driver’s side, while Vernell eased over to the passenger’s window.“Where you goin’?” Eddie asked, overly polite.“We are looking for the residence of Reverend Henry Russell,” thedriver answered, looking hard at Eddie like he knew Eddie was beinga smart-ass. The man sounded like a stuck-up Northern Negro.Eddie stepped back and waved a hand, allowing them to pass.“Three doors down on the right. Green house past the white house.”The car rolled forward and stopped three doors down. From theporch of Aunt Hattie’s house, Eddie’s sister, Lakeesha, commonlyknown as “Mouse,” got up. She’d been curled up in a wicker chairreading, as usual. Mouse never hung out with the other girls. She waswrapped up in books, zipping away down her hole whenever anyonegot too close. She annoyed Eddie. He wished she would act more likeeverybody else, hang out, laugh with the other girls. Mouse was justdifferent, but she was his sister, so he had to defend her.Lakeesha leaned over the porch rail and looked anxiously down thestreet at the Ford. Aunt Hattie, heavy in her porch rocker, gruntedand got to her feet, too.The men got out, walked to the door and knocked. The ReverendHenry Russell opened the door, shook both men’s hands, and beckonedthe visitors inside with a tight gesture. For a flicker of a second,Not Heroes 3Vernell went into his imitation of Reverend Russell’s stiff, robot-likemovements.
Eddie bit back his laughter, not willing to laugh at hisown father.“Who is that?” Eddie called up to his aunt. She was only a few feetaway. None of the houses had any front yards to speak of, just a bit ofbeaten grass and dirt.Aunt Hattie made a disgusted snorting sound. “I don’t know whyHenry thinks he’s got to do this,” she said and went inside, slammingthe screen door behind her.Eddie and Vernell looked at each other, puzzled. Vernell’s sister,Etta Lee, threw the football back to Eddie, an awkward dead-duckthrow that started somewhere down around her knees. Eddie caughtit and flipped the football, spinning, into the air.Eddie threw to Vernell, watching the cluster of girls on Vernell’sporch out of the corner of his eye, heard their light, high laughter.Vernell caught the ball, staggered back a few steps, exaggerating hisstumbling, gratified by the girls’ giggles.“Goofball,” Eddie said. Then they fell into a comfortable rhythm,a dance they’d danced for years. The girls went inside and for a while,the familiar thunk, thunk of the boys passing the football back andforth was the only human sound in the hot afternoon. A mockingbirdsang loudly from the tangled hedges at the edge of the cotton field.The front door of Eddie’s house opened, and Reverend Russell’scrisp voice called, “Son, come inside for a moment.”Eddie fired the ball one last time into Vernell’s outstretched arms.Vernell twirled and ran, darting this way and that down the street,evading imaginary pursuit.Eddie walked down to his house and followed his father into theliving room. The men had removed their hats. The shorter,darker-skinned man’s round glasses caught the light as he lookedtoward the door.Eddie heard the back door open, then close, and figured Mousehad gone into her room the back way, down her safe hole.
After the bright June sun outside, the living room was dark, the airstill and heavy on Eddie’s skin. Empty coffee cups sat on the tableamong the crumbs of Mama’s lemon cake. The tall man shut thebrown leather briefcase and snapped it closed.Eddie saw the two men recognize him from the encounter outsideand exchange quick glances.“Mel Collier from the NAACP,” his father said, waving a hand atthe tall man.NAACP? Eddie thought. What are they doing here?“Shelby Reed, from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,”Reverend Russell continued, indicating the shorter, darkerman. “My son, Eddie Russell.”Eddie shook hands formally with the two men.“Eddie.” His father looked down at the floor, his hands clasped asif he was praying. Eddie heard his mother moving around in thekitchen behind the living room.
“Eddie,” Reverend Russell started again. “I’m going to ask you todo something very difficult. We want you to transfer to Forrest HighSchool this fall.”Eddie saw sparks, like he’d been hit hard on the football field andlost consciousness for a few seconds. He sat down on the couch.The two men studied Eddie as carefully as a couple of coaches,looking for signs of weakness. Reverend Russell lifted his glasses towipe his face with his handkerchief. Eddie looked at his father in disbelief,but Reverend Russell looked away.“What are you talking about?” Eddie asked the two strangers.Mr. Collier held up a long sheet of paper, covered with typing.“This,” he said, looking Eddie in the eye, daring him to say somethingsmart, “is a desegregation order.”“You’ve been handpicked, Eddie,” Mr. Reed said. “You’re a goodstudent, and you’ve demonstrated good self-control.”“And you’re an athlete,” Mr. Collier said. “That’s very important.”“What’s that got to do with it?”Not Heroes 5“It gives you a place, a wedge to achieve acceptance in an all-whiteschool,” said his father.Eddie opened his mouth, but Mr. Reed cut him off.“We’re not sure you can do this, Eddie. Your father has assured usyou can, but if you go to that school, you must be like Gandhi. Doyou know who Gandhi was?”Eddie shrugged, half nodding. He knew who Gandhi was, but Mr.
Reed rolled right on, not really looking at him.“Gandhi changed the world by refusing to accept injustice, but hedid it because he was absolutely committed to nonviolence.” Mr.Reed’s dark eyes bored into Eddie’s.Yeah, right, Eddie thought. That might have worked in
India orwherever, but here you’d get your head kicked in.“That’s harder than it sounds,” Mr. Reed said. The muscles of hisjaw rippled. “It takes a great deal of courage to take blows from whitemen and not fight back. More courage than it takes to hit themback.”“Eddie, you are a football player, a basketball player,” Mr. Colliersaid. “Those are violent, competitive sports. To be a star athlete youhave to have a world of fight in you. Can you control that off thefield?”Eddie didn’t answer.“Can you do that, Eddie?” his father asked.About a year before, in 1964, Reverend Russell had taken a busloadof church members to the March on
Washington. Eddie hadgone with him. Before they went, all of them had been taught how toendure taunts and jeers without reacting, how and when to sit downwhen the police told them to move, how to curl up and cover theirheads with their hands if they were beaten.But nothing like that had happened. They had been jammed inamong thousands and thousands of other black folks far back in thecrowd that day. The feeling of being pressed into that multitude ofpeople had stayed with Eddie. He’d felt the anger in the crowd. Otherpeople from the church had talked later about feeling hope rising up
in them that day, but Eddie had only felt like somebody was chokinghim.“Why didn’t you tell me?” Eddie asked.His father’s eyes gleamed behind the glasses. He ignored Eddie’squestion, as Eddie had avoided his.“Son, now is the time to find the strength to endure, to triumph.Nothing is more powerful than a righteous idea,” he said.Eddie looked down at his ragged Converse high-tops. Then he gotup to face the men. He refused to sit like a child in a corner being lecturedby adults.You’re not asking me to do this, are you? You’re telling me, hethought, looking at his father’s still face. For a horrible second hethought he might cry over the unfairness of it. His junior year, starrunning back, all his friends, everything familiar, gone in an instant.He would be nothing at Forrest. Less than nothing—despised, hated.All because of Dr. King’s damned dream.
The men watched him apprehensively. He tried to say, “No.” Hetried to object, to argue, to plead, but one look into his father’s eyes,and he knew it was useless. The train had already left the station.“What’s going to happen?” he asked.Mr. Reed and Mr. Collier looked at each other. Eddie caught aflicker of relief in their eyes.“You can’t expect even one act of kindness,” said Mr. Reed, “notone. If you don’t expect any kindness, it won’t bother you so muchwhen you don’t get it.”
“You must keep your head down, don’t make trouble, don’t bumpinto people, keep your distance and don’t expect to make friends,”Mr. Collier said.“And you must never so much as look a white girl in the face,” Mr.Reed said. “That will get you hurt faster than anything you can do.They don’t exist. Remember that. They are invisible to you, as youwill be invisible to them.”
They sounded like they had made this speech before. Eddie startedto tune them out.Not Heroes 7His father held up his hand, stopping the two younger men intheir tracks.“You must look into the soul of your enemies and find in themsomething to love,” Reverend Russell said, his eyes cold.Eddie looked from one man to another. How could his father havebroken it to him like this, in front of strangers, giving him no choice,no say in it at all? He might actually have chosen to go fight for Dr.King’s dream if he’d been brought into the decision, but his fatherhadn’t trusted him. He’d set him up, trapped him.“Can I play football?” he asked.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶Eddie sat on the couch. His heart pounded, and his thighs quivered.He wished he could get away. His mother had come in and nowsat beside him, patting his arm. Eddie looked in her face and saw thatshe too had submitted to the inevitability of his father’s decision. Butthe quick flash of understanding in her eyes comforted him.“Esther, we’d better get Lakeesha.”With a sigh that caught in her throat, his mother got up and wentinto the kitchen.“Lakeesha?” Eddie asked in amazement. “You’re not going to—”
His father held up a hand to stop him from speaking. Eddielooked at the floor, seething. The door to the porch opened, and heheard a rattle as his mother pulled aside the curtain that separatedLakeesha’s bedroom from the rest of the porch.“Keesha, baby? Your father wants to see you,” Eddie heard her say.Lakeesha stumbled into the living room, looking lost and sleepy,the way she always did when they pulled her out of her books. Whenshe saw the two strange men and Eddie, she stopped, stood upstraight, the fog vanishing from her eyes. Her whole body tensed.Eddie’s fists clenched. There was no hole for Lakeesha to disappearinto.“Lakeesha, daughter,” Reverend Russell began and then stoppedspeaking.Mr. Collier looked at him and quickly started speaking. “Lakeesha,this is Shelby Reed from SNCC.” He pronounced it the way they alldid, snick, like a lock closing. “And I am Mel Collier from theNAACP. We have obtained a court order to desegregate Forrest HighSchool this fall. You and Eddie, and two other girls, Lethe Jeffersonand Rochelle Perry, have been chosen to desegregate the school.”Lakeesha’s eyes darted from one man to another.Say, no. Say, NO! Eddie thought at her.“What’s ‘snick’?” she asked in a small voice.Eddie wanted to scream with frustration. Lakeesha hadn’t even forone second thought about saying, “No,” to their father. At least hehad considered it—for a second.“The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,” Mr. Reedsaid. Eddie hated his condescending smile, like he felt sorry for anyonewho didn’t know what SNCC was. Lakeesha leaned back fromthe two men. She shot a quick glance at Eddie, then stared down ather feet.“What will they do to us?” she asked.Eddie swallowed and closed his eyes, images from television flickeringacross his memory. Screaming whites, their faces twisted, as
frightened children walked down the sidewalk to school guarded bywhite men holding guns.The adults were all silent, too. Everyone in the room held theirbreath.Then Mr. Collier stepped toward Lakeesha, bending down to getto her eye level. He took her hand.“Lakeesha, this is not
Little Rock. We’ve had ten long years offoot-dragging since then, but I truly believe there will be no troublelike that.”“
Selma broke the back of white resistance.” Mr. Reed’s voicegrated on Eddie’s ears. He talked too loud, too clipped, like he wasNot Heroes 9reading a proclamation. “We’ll have a Voting Rights Act before theend of the summer. We’re winning.”Mr. Collier looked at Mr. Reed with a frown. Eddie thought hewas trying to tone Mr. Reed down, warn him to go slow.“We will work with all of you for the rest of the summer on this—what to expect, how to behave,” Mr. Collier said, his voice soft andgentle, but Eddie didn’t trust him either. “You four and the Negrostudents who will be desegregating other white schools this fall—youwill be ready.”Mr. Reed handed Lakeesha a page from a newspaper.“This is Diane Nelson. I was with her at Fisk
University when westarted the lunch counter sit-ins in
Nashville. She’s gone to jail overand over again. Diane Nelson is a hero, Lakeesha. You will be a herotoo.”The faded newspaper clipping shook in Lakeesha’s hand.So! This Mr. Reed had been in the sit-in movement, Eddiethought. That had led to the Freedom Rides, to riots, to people beingbeaten and killed, to little girls about Lakeesha’s age being blown upat church, and finally to him and his little sister being “chosen” todesegregate Forrest High.Eddie got up and crossed the room to his sister, looked down atthe picture in her hand. Diane Nelson, this hero, a beautifullight-skinned, light-eyed Negro woman, stared defiantly at the camera,holding a baby in her arms.Eddie put his arm around Lakeesha’s shoulders, felt her wholebody shivering. His mother’s eyes were closed. She was praying, heknew.Eddie turned and glared at the older men, at his father.“You all want us to go to an all-white school, we’ll go,” he said.“But don’t expect us to be heroes.”