(Written November 8, 2008)
By Gale Cohen
The TV screen was very small and encased in a furniture cabinet. The news segment showed a crowd of African Americans in their Sunday best church clothes. Men were holding their hats, clutching the hands of their children and wives, arm and arm with their mothers, brothers, or friends. On the grainy TV screen the blazing southern sun made their light colored summer clothes appear incandescent against their dark skins. It was Selma, Alabama; it was Mississippi; or Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a peaceful demonstration against segregation. Armed, white policemen mounted on strong horses stood alert with their hands at the ready on their holsters and billy clubs.
It was impossible to tell who moved first. Suddenly the mounted policemen rode into the crowd and with one hundred years of fear and ignorance—turned to hatred and rage—swung their billy clubs down on heads and shoulders. I held my breath as I saw a policeman bring his club down on the back of a little girl in a white ruffled dress. The blow was so strong it sent her sprawling. I saw her tiny feet in her small white shoes fly up in the air before she fell.
My heart pounded and then stopped—so suddenly
I felt something rush out of my chest
—and it was gone for fifty years.
As time passed, I kept trying to rebalance my body. I became part of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist revolution, the early ecology and organic foods movements, and god knows I took a good helping of all the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll the counter-culture had to offer. On some level, it was all an effort to distance myself from the pain that came with the connection of my identity as an American to those policemen raining unbearable violence upon the peaceful demonstrators that day.
This year, I have watched Barack Obama running up steps to board an airplane or standing in the rain with his head tilted upwards, addressing an audience. Sometimes I have found his speeches too vague, too messianic, and too reminiscent of preaching when I did not want to be preached to.
Yet, on November 4th, as the new President—slender, handsome, young, and African American—strides out onto the stage in Soldier’s Field on a cold night in Chicago and begins to talk to his adoring supporters, I feel a flutter in my chest, a knocking.
Something long lost has returned to me, after 50 years.
Gale Cohen is a writer working in Northeast Los Angeles. Most recently, her work was published in the “Bringing the Soul Back Home.” She is co-director of the Pasadena Writing Project.