The civil rights marchers were coming his way again, but there was nothing the old man could do about it this time. A squad of state troopers was riding shotgun, shepherding the weary marchers through the rolling farmland of Lowndes County, notorious for its bloody past. The only heckling had come from truckers over CB radios, with a few obscene gestures from passing pickups.
Tom Coleman, 72, hunched forward in a living room chair, leaning close to the police scanner that crackled with news of 70 demonstrators trekking along Highway 80 on the final Selma-to-Montgomery leg of a march to protest voting discrimination in the South.
It was 17 years after the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, and the bedraggled marchers were retracing the steps of the historic 1965 march that left three civil rights workers dead and many bloodied, but helped give birth to the landmark legislation.
"There's no need for a march," said Coleman, a retired state highway engineer. "They got a four-to-one black majority in Lowndes County now. Nobody's turned down to vote any more."
The Voting Rights Act has worked miracles in Lowndes County, Ala., where Coleman has lived quietly ever since he stood trial for the shooting of two civil rights workers 17 years ago just off the town square. An all-white jury acquitted him of charges that he killed Jonathan Daniels, 26, an Episcopal seminary student, and wounded a priest.
The trial took place in the same courthouse where three Ku Klux Klansmen were acquitted of murdering Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker and Detroit mother, just up the road. The Klansmen were convicted of her murder in federal court.
A week after Liuzzo's death, on March 25, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. At the time, Lowndes County was 80 percent black, but had no blacks on its jury rolls or in any county office.
Now a black sheriff, John Hullett, rides the back roads. Four out of five county commissioners are black. So are the tax assessor, tax collector, school board superintendent and other officials.
"It was the last county in Alabama to register blacks," Charles Smith, the black county commissioner, reminisced. "Blacks couldn't use the public schools they were taxed to pay for. Now we have the key to the schools and the jailhouse. In fact, the jail is the most hospitable place in Lowndes County."
But civil rights leaders say there are places all across the South where blacks are discouraged from flexing their political muscle in 1982, through tactics more subtle than bullets. They point to Pickens County, where Maggie Bozeman, 51, and Julia Wilder, 69, were convicted of illegally helping elderly blacks fill out absentee ballots in a 1978 county election. An all-white jury gave the two black women what are believed to be the stiffest sentences ever handed down in an Alabama voting fraud case.
Wilder got five years, the maximum, and Bozeman four.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized this march to protest their sentences, urge Gov. Fob James to lean on the pardons and paroles board to free them and urge Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act. The marchers set out from Pickens County Feb. 6, and are expected to walk into Montgomery Thursday for a rally at the Capitol.
The marchers have sparked none of the violence that marked the 1965 voting registration march from Selma, only the grumblings of ghosts from that era. Any black who wants to vote, says Coleman, "ought to know how to read and write. Ought to at least know who they're voting for." Most blacks here don't hold grudges against men like Tom Coleman.
"We're gonna let the good Lord take care of him," said Frank Miles, 50, a black county commissioner. "We've learned not to try to pay back what they've done to us. We don't have enough time."
To some old-timers, Coleman remains a quiet hero. To others, he is a living reminder of a bloody past that could return, they say, if Congress doesn't send a clear message to the heartland by extending the Voting Rights Act.
They walked by day and rallied in black churches by night, singing "We Shall Overcome," and chanting, "Reagan, Reagan, he's no good, send him back to Hollywood."
Along the way they slept in homes and churches. Some, like Odessa Warrick, 56, a black mother of three from Tuscaloosa, were veterans of a similar march in 1965, when about 525 blacks came face to face with the Old South on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma.
"I was beat, kicked and dragged about," Warrick said. "They threw rocks at us and called us niggers. Been to jail 13 times. But no one's been hit with billy clubs this time. I kind of miss those jails."
She was delighted at the prospect of defying the Montgomery City Council Thursday and attempting to march the entire length of historic Dexter Avenue, past the first church of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The council, on a 5-to-4 split along racial lines, decided to limit the marchers to two blocks on Dexter.
Last night, a federal judge upheld the Council decision, but denied a city request to enjoin any marcher from deviating from the authorized route.
"We want to retrace our steps," Lowery told the marchers today as they reached the outskirts of Montgomery. "The historic route of Dexter Avenue to the Capitol is part of the civil rights movement that led to the voting rights act."
"Ain't gonna let the jailhouse turn me around!" they chanted. "Gonna keep on marching down freedom's road!"
To dramatize the issue, the SCLC flew down Tony Liuzzo, 26, a part-time school bus driver from Detroit who was only 10 when Klan nightriders gunned down his mother outside of town.
"I was asleep when my father got the call," said Liuzzo, trudging along the highway. "I remember hearing my sister screaming, 'Momma's dead! Momma's dead!' I thought it was a nightmare, then I woke up and found out it was a living nightmare."
Four Klansmen had chased her powder blue Oldsmobile through the darkness at 100 mph before pulling alongside and pumping 25 shots into her car. FBI informer Gary Thomas Rowe was cruising with the nightriders, and testified against them as the key prosecution witness when they were convicted in federal court of violating the 39-year-old woman's civil rights.
But published reports said Rowe had taken part in violent crimes with the Klansmen while working as an FBI informer in Birmingham.
The Liuzzo family, angry over the FBI's questionable role in handling its informer, sued for $2 million in damages, claiming that the FBI was responsible for her death. An internal Justice Department investigation found no basis to discipline FBI agents in the matter.
"Even if we win the lawsuit--I don't care if it's for $150 million--I'd rather have my mother back," said Liuzzo.
"When she was killed, it was like the sun died and her children were the planets and they drifted off into space," he said.
Two beer cans marked the spot where she was killed, and as he came up a hill in the rain tears were streaming down his face. One after another, marchers placed palm crosses on a muddy hillside, then Tony planted a plastic heart of red and white carnations on the spot where his mother had died. He faced the crowd.
"It's a difficult moment for me," he said quietly. "But the spirit of my mother and Dr. King, and every brave soul who laid down their life for freedom lives inside us today. We will pick up their tracks."
The sun came out as the marchers walked on down the highway.