Night on Fire
by Ronald Kidd
It started with a bucket of water, a stack of Dixie cups, and the girl who carried them.
Her name is Janie Forsyth, and she appeared in Stanley Nelson’s magnificent documentary, Freedom Riders. Her family owned a neighborhood market on the outskirts of Anniston, Alabama. On Mother’s Day 1961, a group of African American and white students calling themselves Freedom Riders came to Anniston on a trip through the South to challenge segregation practices. As Janie looked on, a mob forced the bus off the road right in front of the market. They set the bus on fire, and when the riders came stumbling out, the mob beat them. A crowd watched. No one did anything to help the riders.
She got a bucket, filled it with water, took some Dixie cups, and went among the riders, offering them water and comfort. Someone filmed the scene, and I saw it fifty years later in Nelson’s documentary. I was so moved by Janie’s courage that I decided then and there to write a book about it. At first I thought I might tell Janie’s story. Then I decided to create a fictional character who knew Janie and lived in her neighborhood. That character is thirteen-year-old Billie Sims, who, along with her family and best friend, Grant McCall, lives up the hill and is at the market on that terrible day.
That night, Billie asks herself some tough questions: How could people do such a thing? How could others stand by and watch? How could I stand by and watch?
To answer the questions, Billie goes on a bus ride of her own with Jarmaine Jones, a new friend who is the daughter of her family’s maid, Lavender. Jarmaine and Billie decide together that there are two kinds of people in the world: watchers and riders. They want to be riders.
The bus takes them to Montgomery, where the Freedom Riders had been attacked and a rally to support them would be held at First Baptist Church. Attending the rally are Civil Rights leaders Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, Diane Nash, Martin Luther King Jr. The church filled, a mob surrounded it, and the night burst into flame.
Billie and Jarmaine are there. They see what fear can do and how freedom could overcome it.
“I thought freedom was just a word, but it’s not,” says Billie. “My friend Jarmaine taught me that. Freedom is hands and feet, bodies and faces, wounds and scars. It’s a bell, and I rang it. It’s a bus, and I climbed on.”
Billie’s journey was my journey too. My family is from the South, and, like all Americans, we have been infected by racism. As Lavender Jones says, prejudice is a disease. You catch it from your parents and friends. The question isn’t whether you have it, but whether you’ll pass it on.
I don’t want to pass it on, and neither does Billie. I am grateful to her, as I am grateful to all my characters for allowing me to walk alongside them.
It’s why I write. In my reading, I search for a time and place where important things were bubbling up and about to burst, then I imagine what it would have been like to be there. I’m in Anniston with the Freedom Riders. I’m in Dayton, Tennessee, to witness the Scopes Monkey Trial. I’m in Memphis when Elvis Presley cuts his first record. I’m in Sierra Madre, California, to watch the filming of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m in Bristol, Tennessee, to meet the Carter Family and see the birth of country music.
My characters grow from the soil of these places, and important things are bubbling up in them as well, things that spill over into my world and the world of my readers. Racism in Anniston. Doubt in Dayton. Identity in Memphis. Paranoia in Sierra Madre. Faith in Bristol.
I sit in a chair in Nashville, Tennessee, and I travel across America, dipping down when something grabs my attention. It’s a big, rough, troubled, beautiful country, and I am eager to explore it.