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Long Lost Justice, Chapter 1

Mose Washington locked the door of Mt. Olivet Holiness Baptist Church a few minutes before 11:00 on the night of Wednesday, October 14, 1959. He would end up remembering that date for the rest of his life, no matter how much he wanted to forget it. Being the part-time janitor meant he had to stay late and put everything right after the big dinner and revival preaching the church had enjoyed that evening. It also meant making sure that Reverend Dolphus Wiggins, who was preaching the week of revival, was safe and comfortable in the prophet’s chamber the church kept. “Prophet’s Chamber” sounded like a fancy name for the little room with a bed next to the bathroom behind the sanctuary. They’d had to bring in an extra cot for the Reverend’s sweet wife, Matrice.

Mose chuckled to himself. Those old prophets in the Bible probably weren’t married and didn’t carry a wife around to preaching, but Reverend Wiggins did. And Reverend Wiggins wasn’t just any preacher, and this week’s services weren’t just any old revival. Things were happening in Atlanta, Mississippi, Alabama, and farther away. In those places, like here in Pierce’s Crossing, colored people were tired of the bull and the inequality and they were starting to say so.

Mose mused over what he was hearing about and reading in the papers and Reverend Wiggins preached about. Why was it happening now? Maybe the war had done it. Colored men had seen the world and fought for America. Hadn’t he been sent to Germany after Fort Bragg, to work on supply lines? And they all came back from fighting the Nazis and Japs and got treated the same, or worse, than before. Yeah, Reverend Wiggins talked about that, too.

It was an honor that Reverend Wiggins was here in this town. He had boycotted the buses and met with the big names in the movement, like Dr. King. Yes, sir, and he was a good preacher.

All this went through Mose’s mind as he made his way across the dirt road that ran past the church. He started to whistle a gospel tune and feel hopeful. Thanks to a bright half moon, he could step around the holes and uneven places in the road between the church and his trailer on Mt. Olivet Road. When the county decided to give a name to this one-lane dirt road, barely more than a path, they must have figured the easiest thing to do was stick with the name of the church that had been there for over eighty years. The White people who ran the county would have done better to pave the road and make it wide enough for two cars to meet each other. Mose figured that was asking too much of them.

The breeze from earlier that afternoon had taken on a chill and Mose could smell fall. Something about the trees, he thought, was behind that smell. The scent of wood and leaves made him think of things dying and yet doing it in pretty colors. He zipped his jacket against the cool, dry air. “We need some rain,” he thought. He couldn’t remember the last good wet day.

As he was about to enter the yard where his three-room trailer sat, he caught the sound of squealing tires. He squinted in the direction of the sound and saw a pick-up with two figures in the cab and two men standing in the back, holding on to the top of the cab. These men had something wrapped around their faces, like bank robbers in the movies, and ball caps pulled down over their foreheads.

The truck had just turned off the main road, so fast the wheels on the drivers’ side came off the road. Mose froze for a second and then dove into the ditch between the road and his trailer without thinking. He crouched as low as he could. The truck wove back and forth in the narrow road. Mose thanked God he was in the ditch, where he wouldn’t be seen or hit by the wild driver.

“But did they see me after all?” he asked himself. The truck wove back and forth like the driver was drunk, but the four men weren’t yelling like they were. Mose was glad for a minute it had been dry and there was no water in the ditch, even though he didn’t like being down there. Just as likely a snake hiding out now as at any other time. But for now, the smartest thing he could think of was to stay there until the men in the pick-up moved on. He could tell it was a new model of truck, a Ford, a darker color. New meant money, which meant White men.

But they didn’t move on. The truck came to a sudden stop in a cloud of dust in front of the church, about fifty yards down Mt. Olivet Road from his place. The four went about their work quickly. They pulled what looked like two boards out of the back of the truck, not long ones and not the same length, either, and one of the men set about to hammering on them. Mose could hear the blows of steel on wood, even from this distance. Another kneeled on the ground, acting like he was digging a hole. The men—or big boys—weren’t bothering the church building, as if they had some respect for it, or maybe just no interest.

Soon Mose saw them set something upright in the small part-grass, part-gravel space right by the sanctuary’s front door, and he figured it was whatever they had been pounding on. He felt as if his blood stopped cold. The boards were in the shape of a cross, like those boys were mocking the Lord Jesus, but Mose knew they intended more. His worst fears were proven five seconds later when one of them retrieved a big bottle out of the truck, dumped liquid on the wood and the grass around it, and one of the others lit a match.

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