Mrs. Waite is big and beautiful, with a smooth open face and regal bearing. Her head is wrapped in an olive green turban that matches her graceful tunic, and gold hoops shine on her ears.
“They shot him in the belly,“ she begins forcefully. “I miss your kind face already… I cry for you… I mourn for you,” Mrs. Waite sings in her rich full voice.
This was “Lucy Foster’s Elegy” for Jimmie Lee Jackson from the play Jimmy Lee, by Dr. Billie Jean Young. So who was Lucy who loved Jimmie so well? Later I find out she was a “fiery” activist leader in Marion in the 1960s. Jimmy Lee had come home from Indiana and was working with the Movement. That night he had brought his eighty-year old grandfather to the march in support of James Orange, an activist who was being held in the jail in Marion. When his grandfather was attacked by state troopers, Jimmy Lee tried to protect him. For that, state troopers shot him in the stomach. Then they beat him with billy clubs. He died six days later at the age of twenty-six.
When Mrs. Waite finished her song, she announces, “So we said, ‘Let’s take Jimmy Lee’s body to Montgomery and give it to George Wallace!” And that was what started the idea of the march to Montgomery.
“Press on! Press on!” she continues and ends by singing, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
After other speakers, Mrs. Waite comes up to speak again. She is a powerful presence. She speaks about the need for people to work together now to preserve this country. We have to talk with each other, and she gives an example. Before the election, she called a white friend to urge her to vote for Hillary. The friend was impressed by Trumps’ aim to take America back. “Back?” Mrs. Waite asked, “Back to what we had before? Back two hundred years?”
After the program, we were waiting to speak with her, when a young woman came up and called her, “Mama.” I asked if she were Mrs. Waite’s daughter and she explained that Mrs. Waite was the mother of the whole church. I see why. She exudes love, calm assurance, and strength. What gives her that serenity? Some of the reason must be her unshakable faith in God. But maybe it’s also that telling your story, when you have suffered and struggled to do the right thing, is healing. When you finally get recognized for what you went through and what you accomplished, bitterness can melt away.
When she hugs me, I feel what a powerful force of goodness and love she is. She says she won’t give up and that we won’t either. She knows that and I believe her. She says that people can change. “Look how Saul changed into Paul,” she reminds us. I can feel her warmth and strength flow into me.
-- by Penny Hall
More about Jimmy Lee by Dr. Billie Jean Young