“Leave the Books”
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and injustice.
- Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address at
the University of Capetown, South Africa, 1966
The best thing about the start of the new school year was the warm reunion with all my students. The worst thing was saying goodbye to 14-year-old Philip as I sent him off to live with his sister Connie in Massachusetts. I knew he’d be happy there, and safer than if he stayed in Mound Bayou, but his departure left an ache. Only two of my four children remained, and our once full home felt empty.
As a result, it was actually a blessing that I’d suddenly become so busy. I continued to thrive at the high school and I loved being a student again. My favorite class at Delta State College was Adolescent Psychology. The professor was excellent and the subject fascinated me. Every day in class we discussed what goes on in the mind of a teenager. The other students could draw only on their personal experiences of adolescence, but I had the added perspective of parenting my own teenage children and teaching at the local high school.
The first time this became apparent was in a conversation about how much freedom parents should give their teenagers in selecting a college. Some students believed that 18 was old enough to make important life decisions. Others said the parents were entitled to choose because they were footing the bill. One young man repeated what his father had said. “If your feet are under my table, I have the right and duty to make the decisions.”
Eventually, several students turned to me and asked what I thought. I said, “If your feet are under my table, it’s my duty to see you are well fed.” They all laughed and I could see some of them thinking about whether they would dare share this sentiment with their parents.
Often, my comments included anecdotes about my experiences not just with my own children, but also with my students in Mound Bayou. I made no secret of the fact that I lived and worked in an all-black town. One morning, a young lady walked up to me after class and asked to speak to me for a few minutes. She warned me there were members of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council in the class. She said my life was in danger because of my views and begged me to be more careful about what I said.
After we talked for several minutes, I invited her to come home with me for lunch to continue our conversation. She thanked me for the offer and said she’d love to talk some more, but she was afraid to go to Mound Bayou. I promised her she could follow me in her car right to my front door and then walk only a few steps into the house. Trusting that my presence would protect her, she accepted my invitation. Know-
ing the white community viewed us as low-class trash for our involvement in Mound Bayou, I set an elaborate table using bone china, crystal and sterling silver, with the results as elegant as anything you’d find in the richest mansion in the state. Although I personally didn’t value such displays any more, I knew she’d been brought up to do so. My serving her in this manner made it easier for her to respect me and listen to what I had to say.
During the meal, she told me more about herself, beginning with the fact that she was Senator Eastland’s niece. No wonder she was afraid to come to Mound Bayou! She’d grown up in a family that was terrified of Blacks, believing they should be kept completely separate from white society. Her uncle was the state’s foremost spokesman for segregation, quoted on National Public Radio for his comments when addressing a meeting of the White Citizens Council: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.” [See quotation on Google. It gets worse. bbm]
My young guest said her uncle would have a fit if he knew where she was. I encouraged her to tell him, saying perhaps she could influence him to change. She said it was hopeless. She knew the attitudes he represented were wrong, but she lacked the courage to defy everything she’d been taught. By the end of our meal, however, she said, “After meeting you and hearing what you have to say, maybe one day I’ll light my own little candle.” As I walked her to her car, I felt elated by the potential for change I saw in her. My decision to earn a teaching certificate might have far-reaching effects, helping me to influence not only my black high school students, but my white college classmates as well.
Meanwhile, Jo was becoming dissatisfied with the Catholic school. We’d initially placed the children there because of its academic reputation relative to the public school. The teachers were better trained and the classes smaller, so we were willing to put our Jewish children in a Catholic setting. We also viewed this as an opportunity to expose them to a religion other than their own. Often, over dinner, we’d discuss the differences between Judaism and Catholicism, pleased when we could find similarities.
As the children started their second year at the mission school, however, Jo began to object to the strict religious training. In 5th grade, she’d been interested to learn about the Christian Bible, but her 6th grade teacher expanded upon the religion curriculum and used it for her history class as well. When called on to give rote answers based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, Jo refused. She also objected to being ordered to say prayers and cross herself before each class. Her teacher’s response was to say, “None of the other students object and they’re not all Catholic. Why should you be any different? Judaism’s just a different Christian denomination.”
It was only a week into the school year when Sister Rosarita asked Leon and me to come discuss the situation. She recognized that Jo was in a difficult situation and suggested that everybody might be happier if we transferred our daughter to the public school. When we told Jo what Sister had said, she was cheered by the prospect, remembering how much Philip had preferred 9th grade at the public school to 8th grade at the Catholic school. She asked if she could move up to 7th grade in the process of transferring, and we agreed.
The next day, 11-year-old Jo started junior high. She immediately ran into trouble in her math class. She watched as her teacher showed the class how to do long division, something Jo had mastered 2 years earlier in Newton. As he worked a simple problem on the blackboard, Jo saw that he was describing it incorrectly. He said, “Seven goes into 28 four times. Write the number 4 over the twenty-eight. Next, since you can’t divide zero by 7, ignore it. Finally, 7 goes into 7 once. The answer is forty-one.”
Jo raised her hand and said, “You can’t ignore the zero,” and then she explained how the problem should have been done, concluding with, “The correct answer is four hundred one.”
Instead of recognizing his mistake and correcting it, the teacher was annoyed and told Jo to be quiet. Had Jo been older, she might have thought to approach the teacher later in private to discuss the issue, or she might have sought adult advice regarding what to do. But, in the heartless manner typical of pre-teens, Jo kept pushing, asking the teacher to check his answer using multiplication. When he tried to do so, he saw that his answer was wrong and corrected his work.
While Jo viewed the interaction as an invigorating debate she was proud of winning, the teacher was upset and came to our home that evening to discuss the situation with Leon and me. He said he knew he was inadequate as a math teacher. He’d majored in industrial arts and wanted to teach shop, but the school needed a math teacher. As ill prepared as he was, he knew more math than any of his colleagues, and if he didn’t teach it, there would be no class. He ended by saying how frustrated he was because he knew that if Jo hadn’t pointed out his error, he would have taught all his students the wrong thing, and they would later be labeled stupid for not knowing something as basic as long division.
With Leon teaching in the evenings and my attendance at graduate school, the dinner hour became the only occasion we were all together as a family. After we each shared the events of the day and our plans for the next, we cleaned up the dishes and rushed out for the next round of activity, leaving the children on their own. With no television or radio to keep them entertained, Charles and Jo spent the evenings studying, reading, and playing music. I’d get home from Delta State just in time to say goodnight and then we’d all collapse.
The weekends, however, were ours to share as a family. Leon and I taught the children how to play bridge and we spent many a pleasant Saturday evening around the card table, classical music playing softly in the background. Whenever I was dummy, I’d retire to the couch where I picked up my knitting, my hands flying as I worked on the children’s Christmas presents. With all the poverty around us, it somehow seemed right to focus on making our gifts this year, rather than buying them.
With the arrival of the holidays, my parents came to visit, expecting to find us living in poverty, surrounded by people with whom we had nothing in common. They were pleasantly surprised when they walked into our trailers and saw that although we had downsized from our 10-room home in Newton, we were comfortable. I could see them smiling as they recognized the furniture they’d given us over the years. They were doubly pleased to see pictures my father had painted hanging on the walls.
We introduced them to our friends and they were again surprised that we’d been able to connect with interesting, intelligent people in the midst of the cotton fields. Our closest friends, Pauline and Preston Holmes, invited the four of us to their home one evening for dessert. Preston got into a lively discussion with my father, who viewed himself as politically astute and believed he had the answer to every problem.
Dad argued for change from within the system. He was adamantly against what he viewed as unnecessary confrontation and said that if Blacks would just get involved in politics and begin voting, everything would be better. Preston smiled and began listing examples of how Blacks in the Deep South were systematically prevented from voting. He explained that what my father was proposing had already been tried and had failed.
Not to be deterred, Dad absorbed this new information and said, as if he were the first to think of it, “Then white people need to get out there and help.”
Preston answered, “They do. They’re called freedom riders.”
The look on Dad’s face said it all. Preston, in his gentle, non-argumentative style, had finally made my father understand why we felt a need to be there. My parents couldn’t agree with what we were doing, but at least they stopped complaining.
Not long after that, Helen and Henry Lerner came to visit. As far-left Democrats, they’d supported our decision to leave Newton. Despite this, they were unprepared for what they found when they arrived in Mound Bayou. They didn’t seem to notice that we were comfortable and healthy, had a pleasant home, and were surrounded by good friends. In a letter he sent to the extended family on his return to Boston, Henry described our living conditions as “horrifying” and praised us for our bravery. While we appreciated the admiration, we found it disturbing that he saw our lives as miserable.
Henry’s observations were in sharp contrast to the reactions of David and Susan, the two Kramer children who flew down to see us. Twenty-year-old David walked into the trailers, looked around, and then said, his voice heavy with emotion, “You’ve recreated your Newton home in the middle of the cotton fields.” Susan went out with our children and made friends. Neither of them saw our surroundings as horrifying.
The holidays passed and the spring semester got underway. All over the country, people who’d been deeply disturbed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the previous spring talked about celebrating his birthday on January fifteenth. It would be 17 years before the federal government declared the day a national holiday, but my students wanted to do something immediately and proposed to boycott their classes in protest. I urged them to stay in school, saying this was what Dr. King would have wanted. So instead, they asked the administration to allow them to conduct a memorial assembly, much as we’d done the spring before.
The students used my classroom as their base of operations, planning the program, selecting literature and political quotes to read aloud, and rehearsing their speeches. The event was moving and I felt very close to my young charges. Apparently, they felt close to me as well, for a few days later I found an anonymous note on my desk saying I’d been made an honorary Black Panther. Many people might have found this unnerving, viewing the Black Panthers as an organization devoted to violence and the overthrow of our government. But I knew that although they espoused violence when used in self-defense, they were a strong political force that was in many ways commendable.
Founded in Oakland, California in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, their original purpose was to fight police brutality in the black ghetto. They established patrols to monitor police activity and protect ghetto residents from abusive officers. As the organization spread across the country, eventually sponsoring chapters in every major city, they began to help ghetto residents in other ways as well. They arranged for free breakfasts for school children and free medical clinics for those who were sick or injured. They helped the homeless find housing and gave away clothing and food. We had discussed this numerous times in my classroom and I routinely posted newspaper articles about their activities on my bulletin board. When I read the note left on my desk, I thought about all the positive things the Panthers were doing, and was proud to be a member.
A few weeks after this, Leon’s boss, Jack Geiger, showed up unexpectedly and told Leon he wanted to come by the house that evening to talk. Work was not going as smoothly as everyone had hoped and Leon was worried that Jack might be unhappy with him. He was right to worry, for Jack suggested Leon begin looking for work elsewhere.
After Jack left, Leon came into our bedroom, crestfallen. Jack hadn’t said one word of appreciation for all Leon had accomplished in the year-and-a-half we’d lived in Mound Bayou, nor did he give any reasons for his decision to ask Leon to leave. I tried to cheer him up by reminding him the original plan was for him to spend 2 years with the clinic and then turn it over to local physicians. I told him we should go to sleep and start making plans for the future in the morning. When the new day arrived, Leon was determined to make the most of his remaining time. He still had a lot he wanted to accomplish at the clinic and was confident that with the experience he’d gained in Mississippi, he’d have no difficulty landing a similar job elsewhere.
As I thought about Leon’s desire to make his last few months at the clinic worthwhile, I knew I had to do the same at the high school. The time had come for me to figure out what to do with the $1,000 we’d been given by the family of one of Leon’s patients to help the townspeople. I decided to buy classroom sets of 4 paperback books: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr., The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, Shakespeare’s Othello, and an anthology called Currents in Poetry. Leon thought this was a great idea and added that we should give the remainder of the money to Father Guidry to help students at the Catholic school.
It didn't occurr to me to seek approval from my high school before buying the books. We’d been discussing both Dr. King and Malcolm X in my classroom the entire year. Articles about them covered my bulletin board. However, when the books arrived, it set off a firestorm in the community. How dare I bring such incendiary material into the classroom? Before I had a chance to take the books from their boxes, the superintendent called me to his office and said he preferred I not use them.
Struggling to understand why he didn’t want me to expose my students to the actual writings of these men about whom they’d heard so much, I asked, “Don’t you want to become involved in the civil rights movement?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “No.” Then he went on to explain his reluctance, saying that he was afraid if I introduced the books, the white community in the nearby towns would get upset and the safe environment we’d enjoyed for so many years would go up in smoke, perhaps literally.
I went home that evening feeling disturbed and confused. Who was I, an older, well-to-do white woman, to make political decisions with which the locals disagreed? Leon and I discussed my dilemma over dinner and he promised to seek advice from his colleagues at the clinic. The next night, he told me that they had suggested I speak with Aaron Henry, president of the Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP.
I’d heard many good things about Mr. Henry, known nationally for bringing an integrated delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention and demanding to be seated. He said his group of delegates was more representative of Mississippi than the all-white one that had been sent by the state party. Eventually, both delegations were allowed in as a compromise. Given his extensive experience fighting for civil rights and the successes he’d achieved, I was excited by the prospect of meeting with him.
That weekend we drove the 40 miles north to Clarksdale to Mr. Henry's drugstore. The three of us sat down at a table, and I described my situation, telling him of my frustration and doubts and asking if he thought I was introducing appropriate material into my classroom. He said he thought everything I was doing was fine and wanted to know why I was unsure of myself. When I told him it was hard to feel confident when I found myself fighting against Blacks, he said, “Welcome to the club.” I listened in amazement as he told me that for many years, he’d battled other Blacks in his efforts to bring the civil rights movement to Mississippi.
Mr. Henry was all too familiar with my plight and assured me I was on the right track, difficult as it was. He pressed me not to give up, saying my students and the townspeople needed me, whether they knew it or not, and he suggested I look up a man named Dr. Burton. His last statement surprised me. Dr. Burton lived in a large red brick house in the center of Mound Bayou and seemed to have nothing to do with the townspeople. Mr. Henry explained that the good doctor was an ardent civil rights advocate and could be helpful. I promised I’d call Dr. Burton when I got home and seek his support.
As it turned out, Leon and I both had important calls to make. Shortly after I spoke with Dr. Burton and arranged to visit with him, Leon called the University of Miami about the possibility of setting up a clinic in Liberty City, the black ghetto of Miami. We’d heard about riots there the previous summer and knew the community could benefit from a clinic like the one Leon had built in Mound Bayou, but it hadn’t occurred to Leon to seek work there until he was told by Jack Geiger that he’d be out of a job in June. The University was intrigued with Leon’s call and asked him to come for an interview, saying he should plan to spend a whole week in discussions.
Miami! Not only did I love the beauty of the place, but also my parents had settled there when we left Boston for Mississippi. I thought this might discourage Leon from moving there, for although I was almost 50 years old, I still found it difficult to stand up to my father, and this always annoyed Leon. We didn’t discuss it, however, so I assumed Leon had decided not to worry about it. In fact he said that it would be nice for us to reunite with parents.
Other family members would be there as well. Helen and Henry Lerner had been wintering in Coconut Grove for several years and often told us how much they loved it. Their daughter Toby and her husband lived in the area, as did Leon’s cousin Frieda, whom I’d met during our army days. For the first time in two years, I would have family with whom I could share my life.
Leon left the next day. I wished him luck on his interviews and he wished me luck on my upcoming discussion with Dr. Burton. The following morning, I was surprised when my neighbor’s younger sister approached me about the meeting. Jackie lived with her brother, Earl Lucas and his family, and taught at the high school with me. Despite living next door to each other and working together, we’d not gotten to know each other beyond saying hello when passing in the yard or at school. This was about to change. She’d heard about my intention to talk with Dr. Burton and offered to join me.
I cautioned Jackie, saying she should reconsider because of possible damage to her reputation. She thanked me for my concern, but said she wished to support me because she believed in the same things I did, and did not want me to be in this fight alone. Together, Jackie and I walked to Dr. Burton’s. He listened attentively while I explained the situation, and when I told him of my hesitancy to continue in my battle to educate my students about civil rights when the black leaders in the community didn’t want me to do so, he repeated what Aaron Henry had said and encouraged me to carry on. After that, Jackie admitted she’d been afraid in the past to come to my support, but was glad she’d changed her mind. Dr. Burton praised her for getting involved and said it was important for her to continue doing so.
Once it was clear he believed I was on the right path, I sought his advice on how to proceed. I told him there was a PTA meeting scheduled for the following evening and asked if he thought this would be a good time to raise the issue of the books. Dr. Burton said he thought it was the perfect opportunity, after which Jackie said she wanted the privilege of introducing the subject. Dr. Burton smiled as he witnessed her growing enthusiasm and warned us there would be a lively discussion, even a battle. He ended by promising to be there.
As we walked home, Jackie said she’d pick me up and take me to the PTA meeting. Having made her decision to support my efforts, she wanted to demonstrate it to the entire community by walking in with me. She wanted every parent, teacher, and school administrator to know she believed it was right for me to introduce the books into my classroom, even if she lost her job as a result. I tried to talk her out of it, pointing out that she could ill-afford to be fired, but she was adamant.
“I’ve been quiet for too long," she said. "It’s time for me to take a stand.”
We hugged good-bye on the street in front of our homes, and I walked into the trailers totally drained.
It was difficult to fall asleep that night, despite my exhaustion. I wished Leon were there to talk over all that had happened, to strategize about the upcoming PTA meeting, to have him reassure me I was doing the right thing by bringing the controversial books into my classroom. I was also eager to hear how he was faring in Miami, whether the University was open to the idea of a clinic in Liberty City, and if they would consider hiring him to manage it. I kept hoping the phone would ring and I’d hear Leon’s voice saying all was well on his end and that he knew I’d be fine at the PTA meeting. When that didn’t happen, I willed myself to relax and fall asleep, knowing I had a big day of teaching ahead of me, and an even bigger evening.
When Jackie and I walked into the PTA meeting in the school auditorium, there were over 200 parents waiting for it to begin – a record turnout. The chairperson banged his gavel, called for order, had the minutes read, and led the discussion on old business.
Caught up in my thoughts about what I would say regarding the books, I found it hard to concentrate on his words and was startled when he suddenly said, “Since there is no new business, this meeting is closed,” and turned to leave the podium.
Jackie jumped to her feet and called out, “Excuse me, Mr. Chairman, there is new business. We want to discuss the books Mrs. Kruger wants to bring into her classroom.” A clamor arose and it took the chairperson a few moments to settle everyone down. Then he said, “School business is not on the agenda for the PTA.” This was the first time I’d ever heard that argument used. School business not on the agenda? It made no sense at all.
Dr. Burton stood and a hush fell over the crowd. Clearly, he was a highly regarded member of the community and everyone, board members included, wanted to hear what he had to say. At first, the chairman declared him out of order since he was not a bona fide member of the PTA. In response, Dr. Burton asked how much it cost to join and when he was told one dollar, reached into his pocket, took out a bill, and placed it on the table.
“Now I’m a member,” he said. “I wonder how many of you have actually read these books that Mrs. Kruger wishes to introduce into her classroom. Dr. King and Malcolm X have created modern-day classics that are being read all over our country. Othello is a traditional classic, written by the great playwright William Shakespeare, required reading in many high schools and critical for any student wanting to go to college.”
Having explained why he personally believed the books belonged in the classroom, he went on to say, “I suggest the PTA wait a week before making any decisions. Every one of us should use that time to read the books and understand why Mrs. Kruger believes they are appropriate for her students before we consider banning them.” There was a hum of approval throughout the room.
A young man stood on his chair and began to speak.
“Most of you don’t know me. I’ve come from out of town because my friends and I heard about your meeting tonight and we were thrilled that the high school in Mound Bayou was brave enough to consider bringing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X into the classroom. I came, eager to meet the young, black militant spearheading the effort. Imagine my surprise to see a tiny, middle-aged white woman instead. Rather than preventing her from teaching, you should get down and kiss her feet.”
The room was charged with emotion as everyone considered his words. Jackie stood to speak again, but when she tried, her voice broke and she couldn’t continue. The chairperson adjourned the meeting, promising there would be further discussion when they next met. I was immediately surrounded by parents eager to assure me of their support. Jackie and I were hugged over and over as people thanked us for daring to speak out. One mother placed her arms protectively around Jackie and said to everyone, “If something is going on at this school that makes a teacher cry, then we parents have a responsibility to look into it. And we will.”
A couple of days went by without incident. The four boxes of books remained unopened on the floor of my classroom, waiting for approval from the school board. I continued teaching, discussing with my students the political process underway around them and pointing out the opportunity they had to observe first-hand how change could be accomplished.
In the meantime, Leon called to say his talks with the University of Miami had gone well. They didn’t think it was feasible to open a clinic in Liberty City, as Leon had proposed, but they had funding for a health center for migrant farm workers and wanted to hire him to run it. They’d settled on either the town of Homestead, about twenty miles south of Miami, or the Seminole village of Immokalee, a little further to the west. We could move as soon as the school year was over. As much as I’d grown to care about the people of Mound Bayou and felt sad to be leaving, I was delighted that Leon had found another opportunity and everything seemed to be falling into place.
How quickly all that sense of well being disappeared! It was Saturday morning, peaceful and quiet. Jo had gone out to play with her friends in the neighborhood and I could hear piano music coming from the other trailer, telling me Charles was busy practicing. By late the following morning, Leon would be calling to tell me his plane had landed safely in Memphis and it would be only a few hours before we were together again. He would tell me all about his trip to Miami and I would tell him all about the PTA meeting.
The next thing I knew, I heard Jo in the back yard and could tell something was wrong. She was having difficulty climbing the back steps, leaning against her friend and using a crutch fashioned from a stick. Her face was contorted in pain as she tried to hold back her tears. As I reached to help her and asked what had happened, she sank to the floor and cried out “My leg, my leg!”
I knelt beside her and wrapped my arms around her. She buried her face on my shoulder, finally letting the tears flow, shaking with sobs. Not wanting to wait until she could talk again to find out what was wrong, I turned to her friend for an explanation. He looked terrified, as if I might blame him for Jo’s injury. Barely able to speak, he stammered that he and Jo had been playing in a tree house near our backyard when 4 older boys climbed up and attacked her. He kept saying he was sorry he’d been unable to stop them. He’d tried to run for help, but one of the boys held him down while the others beat up Jo. When it was all over, she fell from the tree house and couldn’t get up or stand on her own. I thanked him for bringing Jo home and then he slipped away before I could ask any more questions.
After several minutes, Jo calmed down enough to talk. Between sobs, she told me the boys had tried to get her clothes off and she was afraid they were going to rape her. She was only 11 years old and shouldn’t have even known what rape was, yet here she was telling me about her horrifying experience. She said, “I knew one of them, Mom, and said I’d tell on him. I didn’t know the others, but I recognized him and said he’d get in trouble. He got scared and tried to get the others to stop.”
I asked Jo if she thought she could stand and walk well enough to get to her room. She said she’d try, so I helped her up and we stumbled together from the porch into the trailer and then to her bedroom. The whole time she was leaning on me, I kept reminding myself of the many times I’d worked with injured children in Leon’s pediatric office in Newton and forced myself to remain calm, putting my emotions on hold so I could help Jo.
Once I had her lying on the bed, I knew I had to determine how badly she was hurt. I began pulling her jeans down, but every movement made her cringe. She began to cry again and it took all my strength to continue. Her left leg was swollen above the knee, turning black and blue, and I was afraid it was broken. .
I gently rubbed her leg and asked her to tell me again what had happened. She repeated that she’d been molested, not raped, but wouldn’t tell me what she meant by that. She then said that the boy she knew was the 14-year-old living across the street. I was livid, furious that a neighbor, the older brother of one of Jo’s friends, could do this to her. I told her to lie still while I ran across the street and that I’d be back in a few minutes. Before I left, I told Charles what had happened and he offered to sit with his sister while I was gone.
As soon as I ran out of the trailer, I saw the boy standing alone in his front yard. I grabbed him by the hand and dragged him into his house to his grandmother. She was sitting in the parlor with her older grandson. When I told them what had happened and that I needed to get Jo to the clinic, the older boy offered to help. As he and I ran out of the house, I overheard the grandmother say to the younger boy, “How many times have I told you to leave girls alone?”
When we returned, Jo was lying quietly on her bed, half asleep. The young man lifted her in his arms and carried her to my car, gently setting her down in the back seat. She remained limp throughout, seeming to be in a daze. I was worried that she might have sustained head injuries as well as a broken leg.
The physician in charge while Leon was in Florida was a surgeon named Harvey Sanders. I knew him well. Jo, completely out of it by this time, was taken into an examining room while I told Dr. Sanders everything I knew. He suggested I wait in the corridor while he examined Jo, knowing from past experience that parents were not always able to deal with seeing their children’s injuries.
I couldn’t sit down, and instead paced back and forth, waiting to hear Dr. Sanders’ assessment. As I turned toward the front door of the clinic, I saw the 14-year-old from across the street along with three older boys who I assumed were Jo’s attackers. They wanted to apologize, to say they hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I couldn’t listen and walked away. I couldn’t stand there talking calmly with them while my little girl lay barely conscious in the room behind us.
A few minutes later, Dr. Sanders came out, took my hand in his, and sat me down. He said Jo had major contusions on her leg, two broken ribs, and a concussion. He said it was a miracle she had been able to walk home after the attack; he didn’t expect her to be able to put any weight on her leg for several days. He added that he hadn’t done a pelvic exam to check for rape, but believed Jo knew what rape involved and was accurate in her statement that it hadn’t happened.
I was appreciative of everything Dr. Sanders did that day. In addition to treating Jo, he made sure I was all right, worrying that with Leon out of town, the turmoil of having my daughter attacked might be more than I could handle. He sent a nurse home with me to help move Jo from the car to the bed and a few hours later, he sent another doctor to check on us. After examining Jo, the doctor stayed for a couple of hours and we talked. She expressed concern about the lasting psychological effect of the experience and how it might impact Jo’s relationships with boys. This gave me one more thing to worry about.
After the doctor left, I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured Jo in the tree house with the boys, and the image was unbearable. I kept blaming myself for bringing her to Mississippi in the first place. If the children and I had remained safe in Boston while Leon worked in Mound Bayou, Philip would still be living with me instead of in Amherst, Charles could have gotten the psychological help he needed, and Jo would never have been beaten up.
When morning arrived, Jo seemed to be feeling better. Dr. Sanders dropped by to see how she was and said we could stop worrying about the concussion. He gave her another shot of pain medication and told me to let her sleep as long as possible. He added that her ribs and leg would take many weeks to heal, but the pain would gradually lesson.
While Dr. Sanders and I were talking, the phone rang. It was Leon calling from Memphis to say he’d landed and would be home in two hours. Although I longed to tell him everything that had happened, all I said was, “I can’t wait to see you.”
After I hung up, Dr. Sanders said he was surprised I hadn’t told Leon about Jo, showing remarkable restraint under the circumstances. I answered that I wanted Leon to drive home carefully with his mind on the road, not on recent events in Mound Bayou.
Shortly after Dr. Sanders left, I glanced out the front window and saw Father Guidry and the 5 nuns coming up the road. I’d never before seen them away from the church and their school and was surprised when they turned into our driveway and walked up to our front door. I rushed to let them in, grateful for the visit, knowing it would help pass the time until Leon got home. Sister Rosarita asked if Jo was well enough for visitors and said they’d like to see her. As the sisters walked toward Jo’s bedroom, Father Guidry whispered that he wished to speak with me alone, so he and I stayed behind on the porch to talk.
I listened in disbelief as Father Guidry said he thought that what had happened to Jo was politically motivated. If the boys had really wanted to rape Jo, they could easily have done so. He said this was a message to our family to leave the area. We were trouble. We disturbed the status quo. Father Guidry even went so far as to suggest the boys may have been paid to rough Jo up.
He concluded, “You and your family should leave Mound Bayou immediately, not only for Jo’s sake, but for the sake of the town. If word gets out regarding this incident involving 4 black boys and a white girl, the Ku Klux Klan will have an excuse to burn down the town.”
As much as I hated to believe that what he said was true, it made sense. Why else did the boys show up at the clinic, apologizing for having hurt Jo? Perhaps they’d never really intended to hurt her, but were just trying to scare us, and things got out of hand. Perhaps they didn’t know their own strength. In any case, Father Guidry told me the 2 boys who went to the parochial school would be expelled.
I hadn’t given any thought before to punishment for the boys. I’d been so caught up in worrying about Jo that I hadn’t been concerned about it. If something like this had happened back in Newton, we would have called the police and brought criminal charges. But what could we do in Mound Bayou? If what Father Guidry said was true, we couldn’t risk going to the authorities. Many of the police were Ku Klux Klan members and might respond with more violence. We’d moved to Mississippi to help the black community, not to get it destroyed. Then it occurred to me that my bringing Dr. King and Malcolm X into the high school caused all this. Was I to blame? Trying to hide the turbulence inside me, I walked quietly into Jo’s room, thanked the sisters for coming to the house, and walked them and Father Guidry to the front door.
When I went to check in on Jo again, she was awake, talking softly and laughing with Charles. She tried to sit up and found she could do so without too much pain. Seeing this, and wanting everything to be as normal as possible when Leon walked in the door, I asked if she thought she could get out of bed and sit up somewhere. She said she’d like to try, so with Charles on one side and me on the other, we moved toward the dining room and helped her sit in one chair with her legs resting on another. The three of us sitting at the table with the dog and cat at our feet were the image of domestic tranquility.
Moments later, the front door open and Leon came bounding in as he had so many times over the years, bringing love, joy, and fun into our lives. He was in high spirits, excited by his trip and happy to be home. He hugged me, picked up the dog, and playfully started to drop him on top of Jo’s outstretched legs. We all yelled, “Don’t!”
Leon stopped just in time, with the dog barely an inch above Jo’s bruised leg. He stared at us in bewilderment, put Pepper on the floor, and then asked what was wrong. I spent the next hour telling him. Then he calmly picked up the phone to call Dr. Sanders. They conversed physician to physician and by the end of their conversation, Leon was sure the physical crisis was over. Only then did his parental instincts take hold and he went to Philip’s bedroom, found a baseball bat in the closet, and walked out the front door. He wandered the neighborhood for an hour, looking for the boys who’d attacked Jo. He told me later it was a good thing he didn’t find them, because he didn’t know what he would have done had he been successful.
By the time he returned, he was ready to talk. I told him we should leave Mound Bayou in the next couple of days. His initial reaction was, “Absolutely not. We’ll stay through June, just as we planned. This doesn’t change a thing.”
Perhaps he thought I needlessly feared we were in danger of further attack. Or perhaps he was over whelmed by all that had happened and wasn’t thinking clearly. In any case, he began to change his mind when I said it was Father Guidry who said we should leave, that the incident was politically motivated, and we would be placing the town in danger if we stayed.
Before making a final decision, he spoke with Jo, asking her how she felt about it. Jo said she wanted to leave, but didn’t elaborate. Years later, she told me she was embarrassed about returning to school, knowing all her friends would be aware that the boys had molested her. Like many victims of rape or attempted rape, she felt as if she were to blame, believing she’d somehow sent out a signal that this was okay and she would welcome the boys’ advances. It seems obvious in retrospect that she might think this way, and we should have provided her with an opportunity to talk about it. Unfortunately, back in the sixties, rape counseling was not yet commonplace.
We believed she was afraid to stay for fear she’d be beaten up again, and that was enough for Leon to agree we should leave. He called the University of Miami to see if he could start his new job in a couple of weeks instead of at the beginning of July, and they answered, “The sooner, the better.”
Having settled that, the next question was, “How soon can we leave?” Jo was getting better by the hour and Leon assured me she was well enough to travel. She still spent most of her time in bed and asleep but was more comfortable than she’d been during the first 24 hours. As soon as we tied up a few loose ends at work and packed clothes for the trip and the first few weeks in Miami, we could go. After talking through what this would entail, we decided we could accomplish everything by the following afternoon and begin our trip the morning after.
Over breakfast, we discussed the logistics for the day, beginning with whether Charles should go to school. He wanted to stay home with Jo, and we were concerned that if the incident two days earlier was truly politically motivated, he might be in danger. For the same reason, we decided not to leave the children at home alone while Leon and I went to work. Instead, I would go to school briefly, pick up my belongings, and once I got home, Leon could go to the clinic.
When I walked into my classroom, the students were there with a substitute teacher. As soon as they saw me, they started to ask questions, but I held a finger to my lips and said they should continue listening to the sub while I packed up my desk. They did as I asked, but I could feel them watching me as I opened the top desk drawer and put my personal belongings in a paper bag.
Next, I went to the 4 boxes of books sitting undisturbed on the floor. As I stared at the books, I thought about how much trouble they’d caused, wondering once again if the attack on Jo was a result of my attempts to introduce black literature into the classroom. As I started to pick up one of the boxes, a student called out, “Leave the books, Mrs. Kruger. We’re going to read them.” Other students took up the cry, until they were all begging me to let them keep the books. Encouraged by this sign that I had made a difference for my students, I left the books, blew them a kiss, walked out of the building, and drove home.
As soon as I arrived, Leon took off for the clinic, promising to be home in time for dinner. I looked in on Charles and found him in his room packing his things. I walked aimlessly about the trailers for a few minutes, finding it hard to believe we’d be leaving the following morning. Then I sat with Jo, watching her sleep.
I was just about to start sorting through what to take with us to Miami when the phone rang. It was Mr. Moore, the principal of the high school, calling to ask me to address the students. They were roaming the halls, refusing to sit in class. The rumor was flying through the school that I’d been fired for bringing in the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X books. Mr. Moore had tried to tell them my leaving had nothing to do with the books, but they wouldn’t believe him. They wanted to hear it from me. I said I’d be happy to come but didn’t feel safe leaving the children alone. Since Leon would be at work for the rest of the day, I had to stay home. He said he’d call back in a few minutes. When he did, he said he’d arranged for a friend to stay with Charles and Jo, and I should come straight to the gym as soon as she arrived.
When she did, I got into my car and drove one last time to the school. As I looked into the gym, I saw that every student in the school was sitting quietly in the stands with all the teachers lined up along the walls. Mr. Moore was speaking into a microphone, telling the students he’d sent for me and I would be arriving shortly. When I entered the room and the students noticed me, they all began to applaud. Mr. Moore signaled for me to sit in one of the chairs near the microphone while he finished speaking. I did so, gesturing for silence, and the students settled down.
Mr. Moore started talking again, and for the first time, he used the term “Black” instead of “Negro.” I realized then I had made a difference, not just with the students, but with adults as well.
When I got up to speak, I said, “You probably remember that I started each of our speech classes by asking you to make impromptu speeches. I didn’t know at the time that I would be making one on this, my last day with you. But here I am. My daughter Jo was beaten up over the weekend. She was sexually molested, though not raped. She has two broken ribs, a concussion, and contusions on her leg that are so bad she can’t walk. It will be many weeks before she is well again.”
I told them of the advice we’d received from Father Guidry, whom they all knew and respected. I said he’d asked us to leave Mound Bayou as quickly as possible for the safety of the town, that he was concerned the KKK would hear that 4 black boys had attacked a white girl, and would retaliate. I told my students how much I hated to leave them, that I treasured the time we spent together in the classroom, but I wouldn’t endanger them by staying.
I concluded by saying how much I loved them and would miss them. As I turned to leave, a number of them called out, “What about the books?” I turned back and said what I thought would ease the tense situation. “All adults want what’s best for you, parents and teachers alike. We have many different ideas about education and do not always agree about what’s the right thing to do. You know my beliefs. You should read and broaden your horizons. You have the books. Read them.”
I threw a kiss and turned to leave. Hundreds of students came running out of the stands and surrounded me, blocking my way. Some only wanted to hug me. Others wanted to say good-bye and promise me they’d read the books. Others wept. It took a long time for me to make my way to the door and as I walked out of the building, I thought of all my young charges and how much I would miss them.
Shortly after I arrived at home, Count Gibson and his wife showed up at the door. They’d heard what happened to Jo and flew in from Boston to offer support and sympathy. Perhaps Leon knew they were coming, but their arrival took me by surprise.
Our next guest surprised me even more. Leon came home a couple of hours later with one of the boys who had attacked Jo. The boy’s mother accompanied them and Leon said they were anxious to talk to me and hoped I would see them. The boy started to talk, rambling on about how sorry he was, how they hadn’t meant to hurt Jo. I felt as if I’d heard it all before and found it difficult to force myself to listen. Then he began describing what had happened and I realized his description and my image of the incident were very different. Not knowing yet why this discrepancy had occurred, I interrupted him to ask how long they were up in the tree. He said, “About 45 minutes.” Forty-five minutes? Forty-five minutes!
I’d had no idea that Jo’s ordeal had lasted that long. I started to sob, and the boy’s mother put a hand on my shoulder, trying to comfort me, but I turned away. Leon ushered mother and son out and I stumbled to the divan, buried my face in a cushion, and continued to cry. I don’t know how long I sat there, but eventually I felt someone’s arms around me. I turned and recognized Martha Tranquilli, a nurse who had been working at the local hospital long before the Boston contingent arrived. She stayed with me until I recovered and then brought me back to the other trailer where Leon was preparing dinner.
Shortly after we finished eating, Jo fell asleep and Charles went to his room to pack. Leon and I stood in the kitchen, cleaning up in silence, unable to talk about my breakdown. Just as we put away the last of the dishes, we heard a knock at the front door. About 20 of my students stood outside, asking if they could come in to say goodbye. Leon invited them into the living room where they settled on the chairs, the sofa, the piano bench, and the floor. We talked for a while, reminiscing about favorite times in the classroom and what they believed to be the most important life lessons we’d discussed. While we talked, Leon went to the kitchen, began emptying the refrigerator and cupboards, and returned with snacks for our guests.
When they’d been there for half an hour, one of the students asked if Jo was well enough to join us. He said he had something he wanted to give her. I asked Leon to check on her and he returned a few minutes later, half-carrying her from her bedroom. As she came into the living room, she sank to the floor, exhausted from the effort. The students made room for her, helped her to lie flat on her back so her ribs wouldn’t ache so much, and placed a pillow under her head.
The student who’d asked for Jo knelt beside her and presented her with a vase he had made in art class. He said, “I hope that every time you look at this vase, you’ll think of all the people in Mound Bayou who care about you and are sorry you were hurt. I don’t want your memories of your two years here to focus on the events of the last few days, but on all the good times you’ve had, on the friends you’ve made, and on how much we appreciate what you and your family have done for us.” With that, he hugged Jo gently and placed the vase next to her. It wasn’t long before she was sound asleep, her hands clasped around the vase.
A few minutes later, one of the students pointed out that there were other students waiting outside, milling about in our front yard. The first group to visit left through the back door at the same time that another 20 came in through the front. Over the next few hours, several hundred students streamed through, each staying for 10 to 15 minutes. One after another, the students said how sorry they were to see us go, how much we were appreciated, and how they would never forget us. The last of the students left just after midnight. It had been a bittersweet evening, one we would remember vividly for the rest of our lives.
In the morning, Leon scrambled about the kitchen, making breakfast from the little bit of food left over from the night before. We planned to get an early start, driving in two cars as far as the airport in Greenville. We’d leave Leon’s car there and continue the trip to Miami in my car. Later, Leon would return to retrieve his car and sell the trailers. Our departure was delayed, however, by the arrival of a new group of visitors. In the same way that my students had come the night before, Leon’s colleagues from the clinic came all morning. Many said they’d tried to visit the previous evening, but when they drove by and saw hundreds of students waiting their turn to come in, they decided to leave the night to the teenagers and come instead in the morning.
It was almost noon before the last of Leon’s colleagues left. Only then were we able to pack the cars and get Jo comfortably settled in the back seat with the dog and cat. Charles sat beside her, preferring to be near his sister rather than sitting up front with me. Leon held the car door open as I slipped into the driver’s seat, squeezing my hand one last time to assure me all would be well. Then Leon walked to his car, started up the engine, and we were off. I pulled out onto the road, finding it hard to believe that never again would I view Mound Bayou as our home. Our new life was before us, and I had to be ready for it.