1963 was an ugly year in America. Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, Mississippi. The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas.
In TURN ME LOOSE: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, Frank X. Walker’s poems redeem some of that ugliness. In forty-nine poems, this book recalls the life and murder of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary. In these beautifully crafted poems, Walker conducts an unusual choir. This choir sings history, sadness, hatred, and hope. But its varied themes do not make it unusual. Its varied voices do. TURN ME LOOSE gives us a collection of poems in the voices of the people who surrounded the life and, mostly, the murder of Medgar Evers. We hear poems speaking in the voices of Myrlie Evers, (Medgar Evers’ wife) Byron De La Beckwith, (his white supremacist assassin) Charles Evers, (Medgar Evers’ brother) Willie Da La Beckwith (one of his assassin’s wives) and Thelma De La Beckwith (another of his assassin’s wives). These voices skillfully offer the reader a picture of Mississippi’s culture of racial hatred. They also offer a reflection on memory, while doing the essential work of memory– in the hope that by remembering, we will learn and become more human.
The book opens with Myrlie Evers’ lament that her husband’s memory might slip away. In “What Kills Me” she says:
When people talk about the movement
as if it started in ’64, it erases every
body who vanished on the way home
from work or school…
The need for collective memory is made clear from the book’s first poem. It will echo in the book’s final poem “Heavy Wait.”
If Mississippi is to love her elephant self
she needs a memory as sharp as her ivory tusks
with as many wrinkles as her thick thick past.
The strength of this collection though, at least to me, is the rich, ugly, and haunting variety of voices. The most jarring are the poems in the assassin’s voice. Byron De La Beckwith would be tried twice in 1964 for Evers’ murder, both trials resulting in hung juries. He would go free until 1994, thirty years after the murder, when we was finally convicted. In “Anatomy of Hate” we hear his matter-of-fact reasoning:
I have no problem with colored who know
their place, but it’s easy to hate troublemakers
an’ integrationists, uppity monkeys in suits ‘n ties
little more than pet dogs for northern scum
This poem goes on to reveal the broken fear at the bottom of De La Beckwith’s thinking:
I hated how clean he kept his car. I hated
his always-pressed clothes and shiny shoes. I hated
that he parked in front of his own house.
The power in these voices, for me, comes at the end of each poem. This person just spoke to me. This murderer, this widow, this relative, and now I sit with those words, those twisted ideas, that unending grief. In a way, the voices are relentless. They keep coming at the reader. But their power lies in the dialogue they force with the reader. And these are powerful poems.
Some of the strangest poems are the ones in the voices of De La Beckwith’s wives. In “Stand by Your Man” Willie De La Beckwith says:
Like any smart woman
I’ve stormed out
even divorced him once
to make my point
who even stops
to think about it
and still makes
their lips ask why
I’m so proud to be
Mrs. Byron De La Beckwith
ain’t never heard
Tammy Wynnette sing
– and she’s
from Mississippi too.
In other poems, Willie De La Beckwith recalls elements of her relationship to her husband and to the South. She also recalls some of slavery’s sexual exploitations. She will explain away vicious behavior with very strained logic. But her voice still makes us deal with her. It’s as though she says these remarkably ignorant things and I, as a reader, find myself trying to answer her.
De La Beckwith’s other wife, Thelma, speaks too. In “Bighearted” she shockingly tries to make the case for her husband’s virtue in shooting Evers in the back, not in the face.
You are wrong to think my man a monster
or a lowly coward ’cause he grins at you
from across the courtroom. Your shallow
Faith won’t let you see his generosity…
We get some respite from these voices in a poem like “One Mississippi, Two Mississippis” in which Walker, “after Thomas Sayers Ellis” gives us a back-and-forth picture of Mississippi’s racial divide:
You got old plantations
We got shotgun houses
You got sprawling verandas
We got a piece a front porch
You got beautiful gardens
We got cotton fields
You got Ole Miss Law School
We got Parchman Prison…
The book’s most hopeful poem probably comes near its end. In the opening stanzas of “Gift of Time” Myrlie Evers recalls:
When I was able to see beauty in a world
littered with scars
when I discovered stores of memories
that a bullet couldn’t quit
when I watched a son grown into his father’s face,
his laugh, his walk
I saw how faith could be restored.
TURN ME LOOSE: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers is a necessary book. Fifty years after the murder of Medgar Evers, America still needs transformation, healing and growth. Just this summer, we have seen the United States Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act and, as I write this, we are in the midst of the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old Black teenager, while claiming self-defense. We shall see how this unfolds. But we know the necessity of memory. We know how crucial it is that we remember a life like Medgar Evers’ life. TURN ME LOOSE: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers helps us remember.