When you come out of the house, you tell yourself not to look to see if the truck is still there.
But you do look, and yes, it's still there.
And the rifle, mounted in the window behind the driver, is still there. You figure that's a good thing. If you couldn't see the rifle there, what might that mean?
You figure the big bastard behind the steering wheel is probably the owner of this property; this vast stretch of rolling South Alabama hills, pockmarked every half-mile or so with a sharecropper shanty.
Not for the first time, you curse the biting chill of this windblown February day. It's not supposed to get this cold down here!
Ever since you came out of that first house, three hours ago, that pickup truck has been shadowing you. It never gets too close. It's just parked on top of a hill, or a little ways back from wherever you stop. Always on the high ground. Always someplace where he can watch you. The driver doesn't do anything; just sits up there in that big Dodge.
Yeah, it's gotta be the landowner. Your job, today, is to interview these families –- check out a complaint the Justice Department has received that tenant farmers are being tossed off their land because they registered to vote.
Before last year's Voting Rights Act, these people never could have gotten registered. Couldn't pass the state's literacy test. Even attempting to "reddish" was enough to piss off the locals. In recent months though, growing numbers were successfully gaining status as voters. The threat to the local political establishment is enormous. "Minorities" weren't really a minority in these parts.
But it's hell, interviewing these people. There's no electricity in their houses, and often there's not so much as a kerosene lamp going. No glass windows -- just hinged openings in the walls, shut tight today against the cold. You can't even see the people you're talking to, or count the kids milling around in the darkness. The only light is from the fireplace. You're interviewing a bunch of feet.
"Did you go down to Hayneville, try to register?"
"Yes suh, I did."
"You have any trouble?"
"Naw suh, no trouble. The federal man, there, he signed me up."
"You registered with the Federal Voting Examiners?"
"Yes suh. Signed me up, same day. Didn't even have no test, no more."
"Do you know Mr. Everett McDaniel?"
"Mr. Mack? Yes suh. He d' owner."
"He owns this land -- here?"
"Yes suh, he d' owner, this here land we got. We jes' sharecroppin'."
"This Mr. McDaniel –- did he talk to you any, 'bout you goin' down and registering to vote?"
"Well, he come by here one time, yeah. Mr. Mack -- he say to me, 'William, how you like it, livin' here, on my land?' An' I say, 'I likes it jes' fine, Mr. Mack. I been likin' it jes' fine all my life now.'"
"What did Mr. McDaniel say, 'bout you goin' down to register?"
"Well suh, he -– he don't say nothin' much, d'reckly, 'bout that. He jes' say, 'I seen you, William, down to the courthouse square there on Tuesday ... I got t' wonderin' whether you been givin' any thought, 'bout how you like livin' here -- on some of my best crop land.' That's what he say. He don't say nothin' about me goin' down to reddish."
"So what did you think he meant, when he said that?"
"Well, suh, I kinda knowed what Mr. Mack meant. He meant maybe I ought not t' be messin' around with them federal folks, down there t' Hayneville."
The situation seemed hopeless to me, standing there in that darkened room. Voter intimidation. How do you prove intimidation, when your witnesses have everything to lose at the hands of the bastard who's doing the intimidating?
You've encountered this frustration before in similar cases. When first interviewed, the black witness claims intimidation. But take his deposition -– with the local white man, and the white man's lawyer, sitting right there on the other side of the table -- and the frightened sharecropper will swear that his landlord is a prince among men.
It's the code of the downtrodden: Whatever the white man says –- any white man -- it's best just to agree with him.
.... There is more of this story ...