The Silver Key

by Rebecca F. Sloan

“My name is David Ramsey,” the speaker began.  “I have a story to tell you.”  The words were simple, the voice unexpectedly soft, but every eye in the room was riveted on the white man at the podium, an imposing figure at least six feet tall and two hundred pounds heavy.  His crisp, clean military khaki pants were tucked neatly at the ankle into well-worn combat boots and his broad shoulders were clothed in a matching military khaki shirt with long sleeves rolled just above the elbow, open collar exposing just the hint of a white tee shirt and a breast pocket stuffed with one pen and a small pad of paper.  His thick blonde hair was long for the times, but was nevertheless cut neatly at the neck and about the ears.  One lock fell carelessly over his forehead and softened the severe image he conveyed.  When he spoke, a hush draped over the small crowd of black folks who had gathered to hear what David Ramsey had to say.   From the back of the room, Jennifer Lewis looked at the stranger through the eyes of a young girl not fully aware of the serious nature of the meeting.

When David continued to speak, his face was shadowed with anger and sadness.  “I want you all to become acquainted with a family from Holmes, Mississippi.”  He removed a cloth from a large poster perched on an easel.  It was a photo of a black man and woman and four small children.  “This is Theodosius Simms, his wife, Emma, and their children, Robert, Isaiah, Theo Jr. and the baby girl, Millicent, named after Emma’s mother.”  As he said their names, David used a pointer to indicate to whom he was referring and his voice conveyed a sense of caring and compassion for each person he pointed to.  Jennifer’s eyes were drawn to the faces in the photo and the face of the speaker.

 “Mr. Simms was born on a plantation and has been working in the fields of Mississippi for as long as he can remember.  Like his father before him, he grew into a man and became a sharecropper for a Mr. Billy James.  He married and started his family, all on that plantation.  His current wages are $5.00 a day for about 14 hours of labor.  In this year of our Lord, 1963, that’s not enough to meet the basic needs of his family.  Two months ago Billy James told Mr. Simms that if he didn’t stay away from that mess over in Mileston, something bad was going to happen.  That mess, for your information, is simply meetings that we have been holding to encourage and support voter registration.  That mess is simply an attempt to help the local negro citizens become independent and self-sustaining.  That mess,” David repeated with emphasis, “is nothing more than what we are doing right at this very moment–holding a legal meeting to discuss ideas.”

There was a long pause as David surveyed the room to assess the impact of his words.  He had spent two days driving north in a rattletrap car to meet with the good folks in this small Baptist Church in this mid-western town.  It was first of many such towns he would visit to raise money to support the projects in Mississippi. He made eye contact with as many as he could and gave time for his words to settle into their hearts.  When he was assured that he had their full attention, he continued.

“Last month, Billy James notified Mr. Simms that he owed him over $500.00 and that he had to pay or get off the plantation.  Mr. Simms knows his debts are paid in full and he came to us for help.”

David ran his hands through his hair and made a vain effort to smooth back the wayward lock that fell over his forehead, but it flopped back in place over his eyebrows which were pinched in a stern manner.  “Two weeks ago, Billy James again ordered Mr. Simms to pay his debt.  Last week Billy James ordered him to move off the plantation the next day.  The next day, Billy James confronted Mr. Simms again and this time told him he better not leave until the debt was paid in full.  Mr. Simms is afraid for the safety of his family and, in fact, for his very life.”

David stopped talking because he saw a collective confusion come over the faces of the people who had come to hear his speak.  They knew he wanted money; now they were wondering what else he could possibly want.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” David continued in a manner more compatible with the natural softness of his voice and with a more friendly look in his eyes, “Mr. Simms needs our support and that is why I’m here tonight, asking for your support.  We need money to help Mr. Simms and others who have already lost their homes and jobs.  We need money to help with the expenses of the volunteers who work on the staff of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  Yes, yes, we need money, I won’t lie to you, we need money.  But if you make a contribution tonight and then go home and forget all about me and Mr. Simms and Holmes, Mississippi, you will not even have scratched the surface of what needs to be done.”  To answer the question written across each face before him, he said simply, “I am here tonight to ask for your support—for as long as you can give it –to contribute not only money but your time to help SNCC continue the Mississippi Freedom Project–to help the citizens of Holmes help themselves.  They need food, they need clothing and they need your prayers.”

Jennifer was stunned by what she had just heard.  The words that left David’s lips seemed to settle on her in a way that felt like she, alone, was the intended target.  Nothing in her twenty-four years had ever affected her so deeply.  When Emmett Till was lynched, she had been frightened, outraged and disgusted but had felt safe because there was a physical distance between her and the brutality of the event.  Now that distance narrowed and her skin crawled with those same emotions as she internalized the lives of Theodosius Simms and his family and cursed the system that victimized them.  Deeply moved by the words of David Ramsey and motivated by the request from Reverend Jackson, who had taken the podium in place of David, for contributions to aid the Mississippi Freedom Project, she got up from her chair and walked to the front of the room.  She only had two ten dollar bills in her purse and almost did not notice when she laid one of them in the collection box, only vaguely aware that it meant peanut butter sandwich lunches and no new stockings this week and possibly not enough left to buy gas for her car.  She returned to her seat her head full of images of what her life would be like if she lived in Mississippi.

When Reverend Jackson announced that $300.00 had been raised to pay David’s expenses and to help Mr. Simms pay his unjust debt, it seemed too small an amount for such a huge need.  But David shook hands with Reverend Jackson and others as if he were truly grateful for their assistance.  He was smiling at the group of volunteers and then Reverend Jackson made another announcement.

“As you all can see,” he began, “David here is an exceptional young man.  He has been working in Mississippi for over a year in preparation for the Civil Rights Act, which has just been signed into law.  He and others like him are doing what many of us would like to do if only we had the time and the courage.  We may not have that time or courage but we can help those who do.”

“We need food and clothing almost as much as we need money,” David interjected.  “If I could convince you to organize a food and clothing drive, we have already lined up companies willing to ship these things to the needed areas.”

“That sounds mighty good,” a voice piped up.  It was Mrs. Davison who always doubted any good cause.  “But how will we know that the people who need help will actually get it.”

“Because I guarantee it,” David said firmly.  “My word is my bond.” 

“David also needs transportation,” Reverend Jackson continued.  “The car he is driving barely got him here and may not get him to the next town let alone back to Mississippi.  David has not asked for this, but I am asking that we help him get a car.”

David seemed embarrassed but spoke calmly.  “That would be far too generous.  My concern is not for myself but for the families who are suffering.”

However, a buzz was already in the air about ways to obtain a car.

Jennifer watched and listened and absorbed every emotion in the room.  The harshest things in her life seemed like petals of flowers falling onto carpets of grass compared to the world she knew David had volunteered to live in.  She wondered how any man, especially a white man who could make other choices, could make such a sacrifice.  She knew that whatever sacrifice she would make would mean nothing compared to those whose lives were on the line on a daily basis.  If she had been in church and Reverend Jackson had been making the call, asking one to come forward, asking if there was one who was ready to give him or herself to God, she would have held back, would have known that she was not the one, that she was not ready, that the time was not right, that she could come up with a million excuses why she could not do it. But when she walked up to David and spoke to him as if he were a friend and not a stranger, she felt she had been called and that she could not refuse.  David saw her approach and smiled down from his 6-foot tower when she stood in front of him.

“My name is Jennifer Lewis,” she began.  “Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say, but I have a car that you can borrow until we can get you another one.”  She reached into her purse and pulled out a ring of keys and removed the large silver one to her 1962 Volkswagen and held it out to him.  “I could never take advantage of you like that,” he demurred.

“Reverend Jackson says you need transportation and I have a car.  It’s the least I can do to help.”  Having never made any sacrifice in her life, she was strangely eager to make this one.

“I don’t know when I would be able to return it.  How will you manage?”

“I’ll be fine,” she stated firmly.

“You would end up regretting this, I’m afraid.”

“On the contrary, I think I would always feel good about this.”

David enclosed Jennifer’s hand within his large palm and took the key with an obvious reluctance.  “I’ll see to it that it’s returned to you in good condition.”

However, Jennifer never saw her car again.  About three months later, David sent her a photo of himself standing beside a badly damaged vehicle.  Its side was riddled with bullet holes and the interior had obviously been burned.  The shock on her face was clear as tears clouded her eyes.  The note attached to the photo said simply, “I’m sorry.  I’ll try to replace it.”  She was so relieved that it was not David riddled with bullet holes that the loss of her car seemed insignificant.  He had said his word was his bond and she believed him. 

“I’ll be just fine,” she whispered and she felt no regret.

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