"A letter to Lemuel Penn" - Zach Mitcham


 
 
"A letter to Lemuel Penn" - Zach Mitcham
 
 
[In July 1964 Athens area Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed Lemuel Penn, an African American veteran of World War II and officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, who was returning home to Washington, D.C. after reserve training at Fort Benning. Penn's murder captured
headlines nationwide, dramatizing the need for civil rights reform and ultimately prompting a reappraisal of Klan activity throughout the South. More at New Georgia Encyclopedia link]
 
 

Your daughter wrote me back, Mr. Penn,

said your son rode his red tricycle that day,

hollering to the world: "My Dad's been shot!"

 
He shouted truth. The car that followed you

out of Athens delivered the syringe and needle

of an old darkness, then turned around for more,

 
the red eyes of tail lights like a predator head

on a swivel. Charles felt your warmth stick to him.

He grabbed the wheel, hit a ditch, but lived.
 
 
The trial quickly followed. Loud trucks rounded

the courthouse in the center of town. Lemonade

was sold by kids on the lawn. And a segregated

 
room heard what three men did to you. The defense

lawyer said the driver had been pushed by the Feds,

had a mid-shaped head. The jury convicted the Feds.

 
And when your murder turned 40, the legislator

explained the bridge already had a name, couldn't be

in your honor, Lieutenant Colonel. So I called your last

 
living killer, and his wife answered, told me he wouldn't talk.

I stood in the balcony of the abandoned courtroom,

snapped shots of the juror box and a lone chair

 
with broken legs. Then I wrote your daughter,

who mailed memories, the quiet crowd in the home,

the opera singer neighbor and physician somber

 
at the door, the nighttime trip to the airport

to greet your flag-draped coffin. And when your 4-year-old

namesake throated your fate as he peddled,

 
your oldest girl went to get him, to quiet him,

and lead him by the hand through the front door,

the entrance of flash and bang, forever gone, and never forgotten.
 
                                                                                                                                 
 
 

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