54 Miles


The following is from Leonard Pitts, Jr.’s 54 Miles. Pitts is the author of the novels The Last Thing You Surrender, Grant Park, Freeman, and Before I Forget, as well as two works of nonfiction. He was a journalist for more than forty years, including a long tenure as a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. He is the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, in addition to many other awards. Born and raised in Southern California, he now lives in suburban Washington, DC.

The congregation sang a hymn, “God Will Take Care of You.” To Adam Simon, the words felt hollow and thin, an assertion of confidence he did not feel, but he followed along in the hymnal anyway, joined his voice to all the others, throwing the words against an apprehension, a certainty of doom, that made his stomach ache. “Be not dismayed, whatever betide,” he sang, “God will take care of you.”

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But was God here in Selma, Alabama? Could even God keep a rein on that crazy sheriff, Jim Clark? Or were they all just kidding themselves?

He knew the thought was blasphemy. His mother would be disappointed in him, though of course, that was nothing new. He had lived his entire life with a pervasive sense that he had somehow let Thelma Simon down, though he could never say just how. And as to his dad, well . . . if the Reverend George Simon ever caught wind of those sacrilegious thoughts, he’d probably disown him, only child or not.

But Adam couldn’t help what he felt—or, more to the point, didn’t feel. After a moment, he stopped singing. The other voices crested on without him, a grainy mix—not quite harmony—of men’s uneven baritones and women’s trembly sopranos. “Beneath his wings of love abide,” they sang. “God will take care of you.”

Above the pulpit, a cross made of light beamed down on the congregation. Several of the bulbs were burned out, leaving splotches of darkness on this symbol of Christ’s suffering and victory. It seemed apropos. Adam had never been so scared. And he questioned, not for the first time, exactly what it was he was doing here.

He was supposed to be a senior at the City University of New York. Instead, he had slipped out of town on a Greyhound bus without telling his mother or father, knowing they would never have approved of him taking the semester off to join SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—in trying to register Negroes to vote in some one-horse Alabama town nobody ever heard of. He should have been preparing to accept his diploma this spring as part of the school’s first graduating class. Instead, he was here in this chapel with hundreds of other people, singing words he did not quite believe, wondering if he would survive the day.

Jimmie Lee Jackson certainly hadn’t survived. It was just over two weeks since Alabama state troopers had chased that unfortunate young man and his mother and grandfather into a Negro diner after they joined a protest march. Jimmie Lee, who was unarmed, had tried to keep the cops from beating the old man and his mother. One of the troopers had shot him twice in the stomach and he had died days later of an infection.

The shock of it was still fresh, especially coming just six months after those three missing voting rights workers were found dead over in Mississippi. The year before that, an NAACP official named Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway.

It seemed like every few months, the news brought another stark, if unnecessary, reminder of how dangerous this work was. These crackers down here would kill you just as soon as look at you if you stood up to them. The realization made you check yourself, made you ask if you really believed what you said you believed. If you believed it enough to put your body on the line for it.

After Jimmie Lee’s death, Adam’s mother had called long distance and begged him to come home. He had assured her he would be just fine, but in some shameful secret crevice of his mind, the call had pleased him. Adam knew that was wrong and it made him feel guilty. Still, her worry proved that she cared about him, didn’t it? There had been many times in his almost twenty-two years when he wasn’t quite convinced she did.

Adam was a gangly, round-faced young man, his hair a fine, curly fringe the color of muddy water that he kept cut short; its texture was, he had always thought, nature’s compromise between the black in him and the white. As was his skin. He was so light-complexioned—“high yella,” was the phrase Negroes used—that kids in school had nicknamed him Whiteboy. He had borne it through middle and high school, smiling and pretending it didn’t bother him.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t his skin color that most set Adam apart. Harlem, after all, was home to the whole rainbow of brown that constituted what the world called Negro. To walk its crowded streets was to rub shoulders with high yella, blue black, redbone, chocolate, coffee, almond, cinnamon, and tan. The taunting of his classmates notwithstanding, Adam knew that, in and of himself, he was not so odd.

His parents, however, were another matter. Even in Harlem, one did not often see white men holding hands with black women.

Leaning drunkenly against them, laughing too loudly, a hand resting possessively upon a curvy hip rented at a fair market rate, yes, certainly. It was nothing to see white men who came uptown seeking their jollies by taking black women on what were euphemistically called “dates.”

But to see them walking together holding hands, walking like any respectable married couple on their way to church, on their way to dinner, on their way anywhere—that made people turn their heads. That made people talk. Especially when they were with their half-white son, a boy whose very skin color provided the exclamation point at the end of the sentence:

This Negro woman and this white guy are together!

Not on a “date,” but together.

At how many school plays and restaurants had he seen the shock of it in people’s eyes? How many times had he stood on the playground at ground zero of a jeering crowd of kids, hands balled into fists as he defended his mother’s honor? Too many to count.

His parents made a point of not caring what people thought about them and had always encouraged him to do the same. After all, they were quick to remind him on the rare occasions he said anything about it, they had plenty of friends—at Dad’s church, at Mom’s job, even at his school—who didn’t gawp when they saw them. That should be more than enough, shouldn’t it? Why should they care about the opinions of people who did not even know them?

But Adam cared. He knew he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t help it. And by the time he hit his teens, he had begun to distance himself. He declined to go to restaurants with them, pleading lack of appetite. He stood apart from them at church, he walked ahead of them on the street. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his parents. It was that he was tired of standing out, sick of being the exclamation point on a sentence he didn’t even write.

Mom didn’t seem to care that he didn’t want to be seen with them. He wasn’t even sure she noticed. But Dad did.

“Are you ashamed of us?” he’d asked once. “Or maybe you’re just ashamed of me?”

Adam had shaken his head vigorously. “I just didn’t feel like going out to eat, Dad. I’m not ashamed.”

Which was a lie. Adam was embarrassed by them—not individually, but as a unit, as a pair, as a white man and a black woman walking down Lenox Avenue holding hands like it was nothing, oblivious to the way people stared. He was humiliated by that—and angry with himself for feeling that way.

But how to say that to his father? And saying it to Mom wasn’t even a consideration.

They were not close. Away from the prying eyes of the street, he had always enjoyed spending time with his dad, whether listening to a ball game on the radio, playing checkers, or building a volcano for the science fair. He had no such memories with his mother. Her rare embraces were quick and perfunctory, over before they began. Their conversations were brisk; she spent more time instructing him on how to comport himself in the world than asking his favorite color or what he did in school that day. More than once, he had seen a vaguely accusatory expression in her eyes when he looked up and caught her watching him.

Adam didn’t understand it, but he tried not to take it personally. He knew, mostly from his father and uncle, that her life had been seared by tragedy from early on, what with having her parents lynched back in 1923 when Uncle Luther was nine and she herself was not yet three years old. She had suffered such devastating loss at such a young age. It was perhaps inevitable that she was a bit . . . scarred.

Still, it was hard not to let it hurt him. She was his mom, after all. And you want your mom to like you.

It was as he was thinking this that Adam abruptly became aware of a loud silence. After a moment, he realized that the song had ended and belatedly replaced his hymnal in the pocket on back of the pew in front of him, glad that the singing was finally over. It occurred to him that maybe he was turning into an atheist. Wouldn’t Dad love that? But Adam couldn’t help himself. Especially standing here in this church, getting ready to do what they were about to do.

God will take care of you?

He hoped. He even prayed. But he could not quite believe. Adam had an awful premonition that he was going to die today.

The meeting broke up then, and he shuffled out of the sanctuary with the rest of the marchers. It was a cool, sunny day. The breeze was a welcome kiss on his sweaty brow.

A classmate from CUNY came up to him as he stood there on the steps, savoring it. “I hope you brought your swim trunks,” said Jackson Motley, a cigarette bobbing between his lips. “You Negroes ’bout to end up in the Alabama River.”

“That’s not funny, Jack,” said Adam.

“Ain’t meant to be funny,” said Motley. “It’s the truth.”

Buttoning his coat, Adam stepped down, following the crowd across the unpaved dirt street to the playground of the housing project facing the church. There, they would assemble their march lines. “I’m doing this,” he said, trying to perform conviction he did not feel.

“This ain’t us,” retorted Motley, falling into step beside him. “This some of de Lawd’s foolishness.”

“Us” meant SNCC. “De Lawd” was Martin Luther King.

It was Motley who had brought Adam to SNCC, though Adam hadn’t needed much convincing. Kids in school could call him “Whiteboy” all they wanted; he knew he was a Negro, and he knew what that meant. How could he not, when it seemed like every day, the headlines blared some new atrocity—snarling dogs, high-pressure hoses, burning cigarettes against bare skin, sniper fire in your own damn driveway—against Negroes whose only demand was that America be what America said America was. And how could any self-respecting Negro sit safely on the sidelines while others were putting their lives at risk for the benefit of them all? So Adam, Motley, and other members of SNCC had been down here for months, quietly organizing Negroes to go over to the Dallas County courthouse and register to vote—something white people had made an intentionally arduous and intimidating process.

You want to register?

Explain article 8, paragraph B of the Alabama state constitution.

You want to register?

Name the sixty-seven counties of the state of Alabama.

Tell me how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.

Tell me how high is up.

Small wonder practically no Negro was registered here.

Still, SNCC members resented the way King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had swooped down on their campaign, a contrail of reporters and TV cameras following close behind in expectation that the preachers would deliver some dramatic confrontation, some indelible moment of street theater like in Birmingham two years ago. It had led to an intense debate within the student group—Motley said that he, for one, would “not let those damn preachers use me for cannon fodder.” In the end, SNCC had decided to have no official role in today’s demonstration. Any member, like Adam, who chose to participate did so as a private citizen—not a representative.

“I understand how you feel,” he told Motley. “But see, I don’t care if we get the credit. I care if these Negroes get the vote.”

Motley’s face shrank into an expression sour as gone-bad milk and Adam knew he had struck a nerve. “Well, of course, I want ’em to get the vote, too,” said Motley. “I just don’t see how you all getting dumped in the Alabama River gon’ help that cause.”

“Stop saying that,” said Adam.

Motley gave him a look. He took his time answering. “I guess you done already thought about that,” he finally said.

“I guess I have,” said Adam. He glanced around the playground at the somber faces and focused gazes of the colored men, women, even children getting ready to march. “We all have,” he said.

He might have said more, but a pretty young woman he recognized as one of the march organizers hooked his elbow. “We need you to line up right here,” she said, moving him to a position in line next to a girl—Adam thought she was maybe sixteen—in cat-eye glasses, her hair swept back in a ponytail. They were organizing the marchers in pairs.

The organizer looked at Motley. “You’re not marching, right?”

He shook his head. “No, ma’am,” he said, “I am not.”

“Then I need you to stand over there,” she said, pointing.

Motley touched two fingers to his brow in a mocking salute, then did as he had been told.

Adam realized with a jolt that he had been placed just three rows behind the leaders of the march. He could see King’s lieutenant, Hosea Williams, conferring with John Lewis, the SNCC chairman, who, like Adam, would be marching today without the backing of their organization. Adam couldn’t hear what the two men were saying, but he noted John’s quiet, bulldog intensity. He was a small man, not physically impressive, but he had a way of making himself felt.

The girl next to him said, “I hear Reverend King isn’t here.”

Adam had heard the same. “Preaching at his church in Atlanta,” he said. “That’s what I hear.”

She shrugged. “I’d feel better if he was here.”

“Me too,” said Adam. As a member of SNCC, he hated to admit it, but it was true.

“I’m Emma.”

“Adam,” he said. They shook hands.

“You from around here?”

He shook his head. “New York City. Well, that’s where I grew up. I was actually born in Mobile.”

“New York, huh?” She lifted an eyebrow, impressed. “You a long way from home, then.”

“What about you? Where you from?”

“Right here in Selma,” she said. “Born and raised. Never been too much of nowhere else.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school, then?”

She gave him a direct look. “This more important,” she said. “Even the teachers say so.”

Adam nodded. “Can’t argue with that,” he said.

The line began to move. They walked in silence, two blocks down Sylvan to Water Avenue, where they turned right. Adam glanced at Emma. She was staring straight ahead, her gaze resolute.

White people on the sidewalk gaped after them as they passed. Cars slowed. Still, there was quiet, save for the soft scraping of their feet and the low rumble of the support vehicles following their procession. Two of those vehicles, he knew, were ambulances. Three were hearses.

The hearses were only being used to ferry supplies. Still, they were hearses.

They turned left at Broad Street, and there stood the bridge looming above them, a tower of girders and bolts lifting the empty ribbon of asphalt, which had been closed to vehicle traffic, over the Alabama River. “I wonder who Edmund Pettus was?” Adam asked no one in particular as he read the name emblazoned across the structure.

Emma said, “He was some Confederate general. Grand dragon of the Alabama Klan.”

Adam shook his head. “He was in the KKK, so they put his name on a bridge. I guess if he lynched somebody, they’d have elected him governor.”

The girl met his eyes and Adam had the impression that on any other morning, she might have laughed. “Like I told you,” she said, “you a long way from home.”

The line continued forward, climbing the narrow sidewalk on the left side of the bridge. Adam glanced over the railing and saw fractured sunlight rippling on the muddy water below. The Alabama River was a long way down.

And he couldn’t swim. He tried not to think about that.

At the crest of the bridge, the line stopped. Adam couldn’t quite believe what he saw below him: a phalanx of law enforcement officers stretching across all four lanes of Route 80. He’d have sworn every cop in Alabama was down there waiting for them: state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, possemen. Emergency lights flashed on the police cars. About a dozen troopers were mounted on horseback.

And there were spectators—white people—everywhere. Some crowded the parking lot of the Chicken Treat restaurant, others stood out in front of the Pontiac dealership and the mattress store. Some had climbed up on the hoods of their cars. Confederate flags billowed. It was like a football game.

Adam tried to swallow, but his throat was too stiff. “Jesus,” said the girl. She spoke it in a whisper. Or maybe, he thought, it was a prayer.

And the line moved forward. Up front, John had his hands in the pockets of his raincoat, a small backpack over his left shoulder. Hosea said something to him then. Adam couldn’t make out what it was. John shook his head slightly. His expression radiated a resolute intensity, the focused determination to face whatever needed facing.

The two men led the line of marchers to within fifty feet of the state troopers. There, they stopped again.

Some of the troopers, Adam saw, were busy affixing strange contraptions over their heads. Latches clicked shut. The devices made them look like alien invaders: large insectoid eyes, long elephantine trunks. “Gas masks,” he whispered.

The girl said, “Jesus,” again.

A trooper stepped forward, speaking into a bullhorn. “It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march,” he said. His amplified voice sounded thin and vaguely unreal. “And I’m saying that this is an unlawful assembly. You are to disperse. You are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. Is that clear to you? I’ve got nothing further to say to you.”

Hosea Williams said, “May we have a word with the major?”

The trooper said, “There is no word to be had. You have two minutes to turn around and go back to your church.”

And for a moment they stood there facing one another, the white man bristling with all the authority of the sovereign state of Alabama, the Negro men and women facing all that power with only bone and flesh. Finally, John said, “We should kneel and pray.”

Hosea nodded and began to pass the word. Which was when the trooper barked an order into the bullhorn. “Troopers, advance!”

They came on at a march, billy clubs held chest-high, parallel to the ground, as if to push the marchers back. But something seemed to come over the state troopers as this hammer of white power met the wall of Negro resistance. The moment teetered as if on a fulcrum. Then police discipline and order broke like something brittle, and the white men began to stampede, a tidal wave of blue uniforms and helmets sweeping over, sweeping through the line of Negro protest. From the sidelines, a rebel yell went shrieking up from the spectators in the parking lot like their team had just scored a touchdown.

Adam went down under the wave of uniformed authority. As he scrambled clear, a state trooper lunged for him, truncheon high. Adam threw up his arms to ward off the blow, but the trooper tripped on a scrum of black and white humanity tangled together on the ground and staggered to his left. Adam took the reprieve, clambering to his feet. He heard the clop of horse’s hooves. More rebel yells. “Get them goddamn niggers!” someone screamed. It was a girl’s voice.

To the left, Adam saw John on his knees, dazed. To the right, he saw Hosea running flat out, some little girl wriggling in his arms as he apparently tried to help her get away. He finally put her down and she sprinted ahead of him. A club thudded into the side of John’s head and he dropped. A mounted man with a bat wrapped in barbed wire was chasing after some young Negro man. “Get back here, nigger!” he cried.

Adam stood there stunned as chaos broke wide all around him. It seemed like some terrible waking dream. Then the reality of the thing came home with the crack of a bullwhip and a slashing pain across his back. He wheeled about and saw a man on horseback riding down on him. Adam flinched to the side, avoiding a direct collision, but was staggered by the animal’s flank. Somehow, he kept his footing. Somehow, he ran.

Or he tried to. Adam took two steps, then stopped short when he saw the girl, Emma. She was standing there on wobbly legs, shrieking at the madness that swirled around her. No words, just palpable terror and rage. Adam started toward her, but a white man on horseback got there first. A booted kick to the head broke her glasses and dropped the teenager to the pavement, where she did not move.

Adam took another step, trying to reach her. There came a sharp cracking sound and he whipped around in disbelief, his brain screaming. They had opened fire! The white men were shooting at them!

But no. Bullets weren’t flying. Instead, clouds of white smoke began to billow over the bridge. Tear gas. Even as he realized this, Adam sucked down a lungful of the noxious cloud. It was like sucking down fire. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. His eyes burned so badly he would have gladly ripped them from his head with his own hands. Adam stood there coughing, blind and helpless, his ears reporting carnage all around him.

Horse’s hooves.


Feet moving in every direction.


“Get them niggers!”

Adam Simon was going to die on this bridge. He knew it as surely as he knew his own name.

But he couldn’t just stand here and wait for it to happen. Arms outstretched, hoping to touch any landmark, anything that might give him guidance, he staggered about in the mist. Then his foot struck something yielding. Adam strained to get his eyes to focus. Through tears, he realized it was her, the girl, Emma. Her face was a bloody mess.

He wasn’t sure she was conscious.

He wasn’t sure she was alive.

Adam gave a violent cough. Nausea was a snake burrowing its way up from his gut. Snot and tears dripped down his face. He patted Emma’s cheek roughly. “Are you okay?” he cried. Her eyes flickered. “Come on,” he said. “We got to get out of here.”

On the southbound lane of the bridge, some man was doubled over, retching.

From somewhere far away, white people were laughing and cheering. “They really showed them niggers, huh?”

Adam could not bring Emma to. She was a rag doll.

Horse’s hooves made a thunder on the asphalt. The troopers were chasing marchers through the chemical fog—apparently, all the way back to the chapel.

Adam didn’t want to carry this girl. He wasn’t even sure he could carry himself. But he had no choice. He hooked her armpits and began dragging her body through the white cloud. It was slow going. His eyes were still tearing. His chest was a firepit. He thought of his mother and all the tragedy she had lived. She deserved better than this. He wished he hadn’t snuck out of town to come here. He wished he hadn’t been embarrassed by her and Dad. He wished a lot of things.

I’m sorry, Mom.

Which is when he heard the horse coming at full gallop. Adam spun just in time to see it emerge from the cloud, like a specter from some nightmare, a trooper in a gas mask sitting astride, his club already on its downward arc. Adam’s brain ordered his body to move, but he never had a chance. The truncheon struck his head with a solid crunch. He dropped Emma. The world spun away from him. He saw blood flying up. Then the pavement was coming at him.

And that was the last thing Adam Simon knew.


From 54 Miles by Leonard Pitts, Jr. Used with permission of the publisher, Agate Publishing. Copyright © 2024 by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

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