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Constance Alexander: Frank X Walker brings Medgar Evers back from the grave with “Unghosting”

Summer days when I was nine, between endless games of hopscotch and hide-and-seek, I tried to finish at least a book a day. My quest was to score the most points in my local library’s vacation reading club, and that summer “Little Women” slowed me down.

Probably the biggest book I had ever read, it was also the first one that made me cry. In the chapter entitled, “The Valley of the Shadow” — when the delicate and selfless sister Beth died — I read and re-read those pages through a blur of tears. Up until then, I did not realize the emotional power of words on the page.

Later that summer, through events in real life, I learned that adults could kill children and get away with it. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, on a summer visit to an uncle in the Mississippi Delta, was beaten and lynched, his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Two men were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury of their peers.

A few months later, “Look” magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” in which the two men described the brutal murder. The response caused international outrage and helped spark the American civil rights movement.

By the time I was in high school and college, increased news of similar oppression and racial violence had become almost commonplace. There were too many places and names to keep track of. One of them – Medgar Evers – was named in a song by folk singer Judy Collins, and “Medgar Evers Lullabye” captured the imagination in a way that news accounts did not.

Lyrics from mother to son explained why Medgar was killed: “…because he was black.” They also explained the circumstances of the father’s assassination: “…a man in the bushes was waiting there.” They also contained a mother’s hope for her bereaved son: “that all men are slaves ‘til their brothers are free.”

More powerful than any song about Evers are the poems of Frank X Walker. Published in 2013, his collection, “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” narrates Evers’ life and death, with references to Emmett Till and other tragedies. The poetic monologues speak from different viewpoints, including Byron De La Beckwith, Medgar Evers’s assassin; Beckwith’s wives, Mary Louise (Willie) and Thelma De La Beckwith; Medgar Evers’s brother, Charles; Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers; and a sixth voice that is akin to a Greek chorus.

Medgar Evers is silent, except for his final words, “…turn me loose,” also the book’s title. Nevertheless, the echoes of Medgar’s voice are woven into the poems.

A timeline at the back of the book chronicles key events in the civil rights struggle, starting with 1954 and the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, ruling of the Supreme Court. The last entry on the timeline is the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed by a volunteer Neighborhood Watch volunteer in 2012.

February is African American History Month, the shortest month of all twelve, and already more than half gone. There is still time, however, to get informed and examine the factors contributing to racial hatred and violence. Frank X Walker’s poems in “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” are a good place to begin the journey.

Frank X Walker is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a professor at UK, and a former Kentucky Poet Laureate. He has published many volumes of poetry. “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” won a NAACP Image Award. Additional information about the poet and his poems is available on Facebook. His website is frankxwalker.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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