As I sat outside watching the other inmates, a gentle breeze caressed my face, providing relief from the sun’s hot rays. I was used to the heat, but maybe it was the circumstances that I was in that made it unbearable. I could see that my fellow inmates felt the same as they lazed about, their skin glistening with sweat, their shirts clinging to their backs. ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ rang angrily in my mind when I saw the number of Negroes compared to white people incarcerated. The amount of court cases, as well as families, jobs and lives, lost due to our colour was innumerable.
Half of us didn’t even commit a crime worth being sent to jail for, but here we are! I wiped my forehead with an already sticky hand and surveyed my surroundings in an effort to shake off the contemptuous thought. The dirt oval consisted of some simple worn out exercising equipment, their hinges squeaking in protest with very movement; a few withering trees dying in the midday heat, two lookouts sitting on the inside of the perimeter where the prison guards patrolled the prisoners and a barbed wire fence which enclosed the space in an ominous hug.
I thought pensively about my situation as I kicked the dusty ground vehemently, scuffing my already torn prison boots in the process. The rising hopelessness that I had kept bottled up throughout the court case, believing that with Mr Finch on my side I would definitely be acquitted, quickly vanished, much like the specks of dirt that I had kicked up had disappeared, carried away with the breeze of reality. I observed the bluejays on the nearby trees, warbling their little hearts out with not a care in the world, unaware of the injustice that had occurred.
I was being punished for a crime that I had not committed, accused by a woman whom I have assisted for nigh a year! The court case didn’t just affect me – it affected my family as well and I don’t want them to suffer because of it. What will they do? How will Helen watch the chillun’ and work? They don’t deserve this! My family needs me. It was already a struggle to bring food to the table everyday, and now with most of our income ripped away, I can’t bring myself to fantasise what my family would have to suffer.
Would Helen have to starve to keep the chillun’ physically satisfied? I’ve prayed for them every night confined in the dungeon, praying that God would help them through this adversity. Ms Mayella obviously doesn’t realise that her decision to accuse me affects my family just as much as it affects me. She used the only ticket that would guarantee her victory over the court case, which would prove her innocent from the despicable crime that she had committed – her race. The inequity displayed towards Negroes always perplexed me.
We came from the same ancestors, Adam and Eve, but somehow, white people were born having more rights than others, perceived as superior to others, more moral than others. I should’ve conceded that I was a black man living in a white man’s world, and no matter what I did to prove myself innocent, there would be no justice for me. I hate how all white people acrimoniously conclude that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings and all Negroes aren’t to be trusted around women, as Mr Finch mentioned. How can people be so shallow, so malevolent and so blind?
They’re living a lie! How dare America call themselves a democracy when they can’t even treat their own people equally, lowering our rights, our standards and our lives! The act of incarcerating all black people for almost everything that we do is a paradox to their self-proclaimed government. It is overdue to set things straight, but there is no better time than now to change the way Negroes are treated. I am not going to wait for someone else to take justice, as God knows when that is going to come. Justice is in my hands. The only possible way that I can achieve this is to run.
They’re going to kill me nonetheless so I’m already a dead man walking, but I’m not dying knowing that I just sat there letting them persecute me while knowing that I did nothing to prevent this precedent from occurring again to other Negro families. I must run. I quickly rose from the bench which I was seated on and began jogging the perimeter of the oval, keen to find an escape route to freedom. I took a quick glance at the patrollers- they were watching us inattentively, their faces impassive and eyes glazed over, contenting themselves in their current daydreams.
I scrutinized the fence for any weakness. There were several places where the fence sagged, but all seemed intact. I searched for other possible escape routes, my eyes slowly taking in every detail of the oval, but when failing to find any, I approached an oak tree to ponder over my next move, when flashbacks of my family and previous life overwhelmed me. There were many oak trees in my life – in my backyard, on the sidewalk, at work – but I never knew until now that they were so prominent in my life.
There were oak trees that my children loved to climb on, loved to hide in, loved to have mini adventures in. There were oak trees that I watched from my kitchen window as their branches were softly tickled by the wind, which Helen used to sit under and pensively think about life’s uncertainties, which grew and thrived with my family. There were oak trees which provided me a job, which I spent countless hours climbing up and down laboriously picking acorns, which earned me money to support my family.
My heart ached with sadness when I thought back to those wonderful memories, making me miss my family even more than I originally did. Helen would probably be working strenuously to support the children now without my help. What this event has put my family through is unthinkable. I can’t prevent what I am currently putting them through, but they must understand that if I do no try to get free I will be killed nonetheless. Everyone deserves to have equal rights, and I am going to be the person bringing justice.
I am not going home after my jail sentence knowing that I did nothing to prevent further injustice from occurring to thousands of other Negroes. I want to be able to tell my chillun’ that I didn’t just sit there being persecuted, allowing other Negroes to be persecuted as well, as the pain that discrimination puts us through throughout our lives is unbearable. I want to be a role model for them; to be an example for fighting for what is right. Even though doing so may be dangerous and may lead to death, bringing justice to every race is worth losing a life for.
In a sudden burst of adrenaline and surprising confidence I sprinted as fast as my legs could carry me to the barbed wire fence and began climbing. I almost leaped backwards in surprise as my bare skin came into contact with the burning metal that had been basking in the sun all day, but my mind was set on my goal, and so I ignored the acrid pain and scaled the fence. Consecutively, shouts of surprise and disbelief spread through the prisoners, and, as if my actions brought them back to life, the angry voices of the prison guards soon followed.
Hollering warnings and portentous threats, the patrollers showed no evidence that a few seconds ago they were practically lifeless, but their efforts were wasted as it proved completely futile. With my prior experience climbing trees for Mr Deas, I quickly adapted to my situation and climbed, my hand and feet working simultaneously to make up for my deprivation. My eyes darted to elusive spaces between the barbs and my hand quickly followed suit, with my legs climbing after them.
The barbs clung and sliced at my arms and clothes as the patrollers’ threats became more ominous, their cries climbing to a climatic forte, ineffective at impeding my pilgrimage. The word justice was repeated over and over in my mind, instilling a new hope in me, encouraging me to continue climbing. This failed when a gunshot shattered my tranquillity. A bolt of pure panic shot through me, causing my heart to thrash against my ribs as I realised the severity of my situation.
I lost my footing, dangling in mid-air for a second, but immediately found another foothold and scaled the fence even faster than before. Seeing that the gunshot failed to stop me, several more shots were fired into the air, counterproductive as it only made me move twice as fast. ‘Quicker! Quicker! ’ my body seemed to holler at me, dissatisfied with the speed that I was travelling. My stomach started to twist with despair, my newfound hope abandoning me, slowly overtaken by doubt – then a bullet whistled past my ear inches from my face.
My hand began shaking uncontrollably from pure fear. My lungs were screaming for air, the spikes were screaming for blood, but my scream for justice overpowered them all. More deathly bullets whistled past, when one successfully tore through my leg. An explosion of pain raked my leg, and immediately I felt warm blood gush out of my pulsing wound. I was almost over the fence though! Clenching my teeth, I reached between the razor wire. The screams and hollering of the prisoners were vociferous, but nothing mattered as the second bullet hit my crippled shoulder.
It immediately burst into flames as I started sweating uncontrollably, the back of my shirt soaked with blood, clinging to me. In a last ditch effort, I hauled myself between the razor wire to the other side of the fence leading to freedom. A third bullet tore through my thigh, sending me rolling to the ground in a bloodied heap while other bullets whizzed past and wounded me. The shrill roar in my ears gradually ceased to a dull hum, and dizzying black splotches began crowding my vision. The last thought that left my mind was: Freedom.