Days of Jim Crow and Protest

The book-length poem One With Others [a little book of her days] by C. D. Wright is a tribute to dead friend and mentor Margaret Kaelin McHugh, an obscure Arkansas civil-rights activist who, in 1969, crossed the color line to support black activists making a now forgotten march from W. Memphis to Little Rock.

In the poem McHugh is known only as “V” (a nickname given her by a young Carolyn Wright and other students at a Memphis College). The students rescued V from abject poverty in a Memphis slum where she was living after being ostracized by her family and community for her singular act of opposition to the fiercely held Jim Crow laws in Arkansas. The students brought V onto their campus to live and later helped her relocate to the North. Thus began a lifelong friendship between V and the author that ended with V’s death in 2004 in Hell’s Kitchen.

After McHugh’s death, the author went to Arkansas to seek out people who knew McHugh and who had participated in the march. Snippets from their responses to the author’s questions about the march and civil-rights protests of the time are the building blocks on which this book length poem is developed.

One With Others is an experimental poem composed of the responses to the author’s questions interspersed with comments in square brackets []. The persons who are quoted in the poem are identified only by a brief descriptive name. Here is V describing the march:

The marchers step off from the jailhouse at Bragg’s Spur, 8:17 a.m. More police than reporters. More reporters than police.

The self-described Prime Minister of the Invaders, 31, and five others have begun their trek. SWEET WILLIE WINE’S WALK AGAINST FEAR is on the move.

V: We had the water and the shoes in my car. There was a black man named Stiles. [He was a midget.] He kept that water good and cold [for the marchers].

“The threat they say is coming from the east” [of the six Negroes walking to Little Rock and the white woman driving a station wagon].

It was something you came through that.

V: It was invigorating. It was the most alive I ever felt in my life.

FBI followed me for a long time. Stringers for the Gazette and the Appeal trailed me for a year. Once every ten or twelve years, I will get a caller. I used all of my life. I told my friend Gert, you’ve got your life until you use it.

Quoted from One With Others [a little book of her days], Copper Canyon Press, 2010

This poem is subtitled: a little book of her days; in those days of Jim Crow law, I have no doubt that the six marchers and V, a white woman behind the wheel of their support vehicle, put their lives on the line for their beliefs.

Wright’s long poem recalls obscure and mostly forgotten actors to the stage, and their story reminds us all of the long struggle for civil rights and equality in America. This is an emotional story movingly presented by the author and her cast of characters from Arkansas’ past.

Carto
Day 42: One With Others (C. D. Wright) (2010).

Notes:
1. CD Wright, professor of Literary Arts at Brown University, is winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for One With Others.

Wright was born and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. She has published over a dozen books many of which were published by Copper Canyon Press.

2. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas is a free, authoritative source of information about the rich history, geography, and culture of Arkansas. It is updated regularly to ensure the people of Arkansas have an accurate and accessible resource to explore our heritage.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas: History & Culture provides the following timeline:

  • 1964 – Arkansas Voter Project concludes that only 42 percent of black voters are registered.
  • 1964 – A basset hound named Harvey is found to have paid the poll tax and is registered to vote in three counties.
  • 1964 (June) – Congress approves the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • 1965 – Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 passes.
  • 1967 (August 9) – Statistics indicate that 83.4 percent of black students still attend segregated schools.
  • 1968 (April 4) – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis.
  • 1969 – United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare begins filing desegregation lawsuits in Arkansas.

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About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked; Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure. Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical.
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7 Responses to Days of Jim Crow and Protest

  1. jdoggtn says:

    One of the odd things about this poem is that so much of the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh as described in the poem corresponds to the life of Peggy Vittitow in Forrest City, who had been arrested the night Sweet Willie Wine was beaten, and her car burned. While in the jail, her husband Joe Vittitow had her served with divorce papers. Of course it is entirely possible that she changed her name in later years, or that Wright is protecting her with a pseudonym. But the nickname “V”- could it have been for Vittitow?

    • Interesting speculation. The author says that “V” is a reference to Pynchon’s first novel, which was a favorite of Ms. McHugh. My own feeling is that “V” is a composite who stands in for any Southerner whose live was changed by their support for the marches.
      Carto

    • Nic Helkenn says:

      They are one and the same. McHugh was V’s maiden name, and from my understanding, she never liked being called Peggy. V was my grandmother; may I ask how you knew her?

  2. jdoggtn says:

    I didn’t know her, but I knew of her through my friendship with Dr. Coby Vernon Smith of the Invaders. In turn, Coby introduced me to Charles Cabbage and Sekurah (the former Sweet Willie Wine Watson). As I became more aware of the Forrest City story, I had hoped to locate Peggy Vittitow and interview her about Forrest City. Unfortunately, none of my Memphis friends had seen her since the early 1970’s. They believed that she was in Louisville.

  3. hd72335 says:

    My aunt told me the story of Sweet Willie Wine and how a married white woman ran off with him when he left Forrest City (my hometown) after he was involved in the race riots there. If I’m not mistaken, it was “Mrs. Vittitow” that she told me about. I’ve been looking online for years for any information about Mrs. Vittitow, and am glad that I found this blog. I’m sorry to hear that she has passed.

  4. drdchina says:

    I remember the Vittitow family and the Sweet Willie Wine trek as a child/teenager growing up in Forrest City at the time. I came across this blog via CD Wright’s work that I was alerted to last night….I attended the regional premiere of a play, “The City of Conversation” in Memphis. The main character of the play announced that she grew up in Forrest City, AR….and of course that aroused my curiousity….so I contacted the playwright and he became connected to Forrest City, in part, due to his friendship with CD Wright. Now I am all intrigued, with my memories of that time in my life and so interested in reading more of CD Wright’s work. What a small and complex world we are in.

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