“Will music be used with your entry?” read one of the questions on the entry form.
“Will you be throwing items?”
“If you are marching, walking or entering multiple horses or ATVs please indicate number of people/units.”
The mayor looked at the long blank spaces next to the questions.
“Music?” he thought. “Items? Multiple horses?”
He looked at his calendar. He read over the details again. Not only were the chamber members some of the most powerful people in the county, they were some of the most powerful people in Alabama.
And the residents of Lisman were some of the least, which was why the mayor tore a sheet off a pink message pad and began sketching out an idea. He knew the town could not afford to miss even one chance to be represented.
“I thought about boots,” he would say later.
He drew a vertical line, a longer sloping line, and another.
“Then I thought about glory.”
He had all sorts of ideas for what Lisman could be. In his office was a sketch of an elaborate park he hoped to get built someday. There were plans to hire a police officer, and rebuild the abandoned school library, and so many others for promoting the welfare of the residents he always referred to as “the citizens.”
There was also a budget on his desk, showing that the town had no money for the park, or a single police officer, or much more than the part-time clerk who flipped the sign on the front door of town hall to “open” Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
This was the reality of Lisman, a place where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had once led a rally for voting rights and, all these years later, the promises of democracy he’d argued for had come down to a mayor getting together a float to remind the world that places such as Lisman existed.
He drew some more lines, and nine asterisk-like stars.
“Plywood,” he wrote at the top of the piece of paper.
“Boots for Lisman,” he wrote at the bottom and then looked at what he had drawn, envisioning the words on an enormous boot cut out of a sheet of plywood, and the boot on top of a hay-filled trailer, and the trailer rolling past crowds cheering around the courthouse square.
At a moment when American politics has become a raw and racially polarized struggle for power, Lisman is one of the most powerless places of all. It is small. It is rural. It is mostly poor and mostly African American, and it exists in Alabama, where those characteristics remain the very things that still make people forgotten.
Elsewhere in the South, political momentum has been heading in a different direction. In Georgia, an African American woman had almost been elected governor. North Carolina is a swing state. In Texas and even Mississippi, politics has been shifting toward the interests of a more racially and ideologically diverse electorate.
But that is not the case in Alabama, where the state’s Democratic Party — the traditional means to power for black voters — has become so dysfunctional that the only Democrat elected statewide, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, recently said the party was being “destroyed from within.”
Alabama is where an electorate that remains solidly white, conservative and evangelical delivered President Trump one of his most resounding victories, and gave the GOP near-total control of the state legislature, every statewide office and every congressional seat except one.
It is where a pending federal lawsuit is arguing that the state is violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and where one of the first official acts of the current governor was to sign legislation protecting the Confederate statues that are part of courthouse squares all over the state, including the one down the highway from Lisman, where in five days there was going to be a parade.
“Yeah,” the mayor was saying on the phone, talking to a town councilman about a trailer they might be able to borrow for the float. “He’s got one. Yeah. In that brick house. Yeah, that’s it.”
Among the parade sponsors were two banks, a credit union and a paper mill that was owned by one of the most influential companies in the nation. After he had sketched his idea for the float, the mayor asked some council members if they thought the town should participate, and they agreed that Lisman should show up, knowing that was the only way they had ever gotten anything.
In 1962, Lisman residents had put their names to a federal lawsuit challenging the white Choctaw County registrars who were rejecting 95 percent of black voters’ applications.
In the summer of 1971, people from Lisman had joined the demonstrations at the courthouse square to demand access to county jobs that blacks had been denied.
And in 1979, they decided to incorporate so that they could more effectively claim their share of tax dollars being spent in other communities in the county.
That was how Lisman had what little budget it had. It was how the roads had gone from dirt to pavement, and the sewers got built, and the sign had gone up on Highway 10: “Welcome to Lisman.” That was how the town had bought the old school and designated the former principal’s office Lisman Town Hall.
“Everything here came at a cost and we don’t want to lose anything,” said Linda Turner Gaines, town councilwoman, explaining why Lisman needed to be in the parade.
The mayor was 54, younger than the civil-rights-era veterans who lived in town, but he had grown up hearing their stories. He knew that Mrs. Gaines, as he always called her, had joined the marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. He knew which residents had faced down police batons, and about the Lisman woman killed during the 1971 demonstrations, when she was run over by a white man driving a pickup truck and given a “martyr’s funeral” led by the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, who called the square “holy ground.”
The mayor understood all of that, so he was on the phone, trying to find the trailer, looking at his drawing of the boot.
“Okay,” he continued, taking a pen and tracing over the lines. “All right, and if we don’t have it together by then — yeah. Well. Then we’ll just have to see.”
The person on the other end of the call was a town councilman named Darris Johnson, who was at work in a different part of the county repairing a bridge in the afternoon heat. When he had a break, he made some calls about the trailer. He found the one the mayor had mentioned, but it was being used. He called someone else, and someone else, until he found a colleague who had one to lend, and when he got off work, he drove over to get it.
“You do what you can,” Darris said.
He passed town hall, where the mayor’s truck was the only one in the driveway.
He turned onto a county road, and for long stretches, he was alone on the two-lane, and that’s how it was most of the time around Lisman. It was still. It was quiet. Almost everything was the same.
He passed by the churches he’d always known. Over here was Greater First Baptist, where King spoke. Over there was Pleasant Hill Baptist, where Abernathy spoke after King was killed. Down the road was Mount Moriah Baptist, where Darris sat in the same pew every Sunday, listening to the pastor say, “Lord, we gotta be patient.”
He passed the same houses where black leaders had once hosted Freedom Riders, and the Ku Klux Klan had responded with a three-mile-long parade of pickup trucks, their headlights on high beam. The brick house on the corner. The wooden one with the sagging porch. The old Victorian where a window air conditioner was now dripping in the same summer heat. He knew the families inside, and they were mostly the same, too, people trying to maintain what they could in a town where there not only was no police officer, but no maintenance person, nobody except for them to take care of anything.
Volunteers took turns filling in the potholes, but the potholes kept appearing. They cut the grass along one road, but it kept growing along the others. They voted in high percentages every election, but little changed in the grand scheme of Alabama, and so little changed in Lisman.
Each day, the old brick stores rotted a bit more. Each week, weeds advanced across abandoned houses. Each month, the building where the mayor had his office fell deeper into ruin.
Along the highway, the only gas station near Lisman, Ezell’s One Stop, limped along on the largesse of locals who bought $2 of regular with change, or a raisin creme pie, or a Busch tallboy, and Rose Edwards was usually working behind the counter.
“What you want, baby?” she said to a man in a blue work uniform. “You doin’ all right?”
“We here,” he said, while the owner of the station, a white man named James Ezell, sat in his back office, where he’d run the store for nearly 50 years.
People called him Ezell, and he was the same Ezell they’d known forever, who called himself “the least racist man in the county,” openly wondered what the civil rights movement had really achieved and recently started running the Choctaw County Republican Party out of the back of the store. On his desk were names of people from all over the county wanting to join. On his cellphone were contacts of various state officials.
“That right there is the commissioner of agriculture,” he said, pointing to a number. “He called me this morning trying to get something going in this part of the state. Hemp.”
He walked to the front of the store, where Rose said of those officials, “I don’t think they know we exist.”
“I can get the governor to come anytime I want,” he said. “But see, people know how you gonna vote. Why should they come if they know how you gonna vote?”
“But we Democrats have a voice, too,” said Rose.
“But the Republicans run the state now,” he said, and Rose folded her arms, turned and looked out the window.
Meanwhile, at town hall, the clerk began another shift the way she always did, wiping down the front counter and lighting a single candle, and the mayor was in his office, looking at a map of the county’s new “Opportunity Zones” and realizing that Lisman was not included.
He rolled his chair to get a file, and a wheel broke, jolting him off balance.
“Lord,” he said.
He kept working, and in the late afternoon, Darris arrived at a farm where an old trailer was parked in a gravel lot, the flatbed scattered with pine needles and missing seven planks.
He kicked the tires, realizing they needed air. He lined up the hitch ball on his truck with the trailer latch. He had been sweating all day and now he wiped more sweat off his forehead. He muscled the trailer into place. He got into his truck and hauled the flatbed back to Lisman, pulling into the empty parking lot of the firehouse by town hall as the sun was going down.
He had planned to park it inside an empty bay, but when he got there, he realized he didn’t have the keys to the bay door, so he called the person he knew would answer.
“Hey Ellis,” Darris said to Ellis Johnson, another town councilman. “Can you come unlock the firehouse for me? I can’t find my keys.”
“Be right there,” Ellis said, and soon, he was pulling up in his battered gray pickup.
Ellis unlocked the firehouse. Darris inched the trailer inside, only it was too long to fit. He inched it back out. Ellis locked the door.
Darris decided he would just park the trailer at his own house, so he hauled it back through the potholed streets, inching around the corners and up a driveway to the yard outside the mobile home he had left before dawn. Now it was dark, and Lisman had a trailer.
The reason Darris called Ellis Johnson was because everyone was always calling Ellis Johnson, and he was always answering, driving through town in the old gray truck, tools heaped in the back. One day he was fixing somebody’s lawn mower. One day he was fixing somebody’s car. One day he was up early fixing a neighbor’s air conditioner, and by midmorning he was still working. He looked at his watch.
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “I’m starting today off in arrears.”
It was Wednesday now, the day before the parade. He was supposed to be at town hall to supervise kids in the summer lunch program that the town ran on donations. He loaded his tools back in the truck and headed over to town hall, a Bible and a package of crackers on his dashboard.
He was 63 and at a point in life where he knew what he cared about, and that was Lisman. His family had moved to town when he was 5, after a white man with a .45 pistol had driven his father off his land in a nearby town no longer on any maps, where he had been among several African Americans who had managed to acquire hundreds of acres.
“I remember my grandmother begging that man, ‘Don’t kill my son,’ ” Ellis said of his earliest lesson about power in Alabama.
Another came when his father got a job delivering for a white man who ran a store. Ellis recalled that his dad grew a mustache “on a whim,” and that the boss had taunted him about it, saying he should be careful trying to act “grown” like Martin Luther King Jr.
“My dad took that to heart,” Ellis said. “He came home, and he shaved that off.”
That taught him about the power of King, and as he began reading and listening to his speeches, one quote stayed with him, about the “death of the spirit” that happens when a man chooses material or physical security over standing for a great cause.
He tried standing for a great cause. He joined other Lisman residents in the marches for desegregation that were taking place at the courthouse square and remembered silently bracing himself to get beaten by police batons before leaders halted the demonstration.
He went to Selma and registered black voters and remembered the terrified looks on some faces as they decided to put their names on the forms.
He went to work as an orderly in a hospital, where he watched a child die of a gangrened wound, and remembered thinking, “That child died because he was poor.”
He worked for a roofing company, where he became an outspoken union leader, which he believed was the reason he got fired three times.
His wife got sick, and he started collecting scrap metal to pay the bills.
He came to think his father was a wiser man than he had ever understood.
“Dad lived,” he said.
He gave up on great causes and heroes. He gave up on church, if not the Lord. He gave up on Alabama changing. He gave up on everything except Lisman, a place as familiar and known to him as it was lost to the world outside.
“That leaves me here, doing what I can in my town, not expecting a lot,” he said. “The least of these are my heroes.”
He went into the old school cafeteria to get the lunches ready, and then sat at the table with a sign-in sheet, waiting for the kids.
“Hey Mr. Johnson,” said a boy coming in.
“Got a drink?” another said.
“They small drinks but that’s what we have,” Ellis said, and when lunch was over, he walked over to the mayor’s office to turn in some paperwork.
“Mayor Ward, how you doing?” he said.
The mayor had been thinking about downsizing his float vision, maybe just asking some kids to ride on the trailer and wave. But he didn’t tell Ellis any of that, he just told him about his idea for the boot.
“That plyboard we have, I don’t know how thick that plyboard is,” he said.
“You need it?” Ellis said.
“I was thinking of using that for the float,” the mayor said.
Ellis finished faxing the paperwork.
“Okay,” he said. “Well, I’ll be over there if you need me.”
Ellis went back to the cafeteria to clean up from lunch. After a while, the mayor left, and Ellis watched him inching down the breezeway to his truck using the walker he’d needed since he was in a car accident. He locked up the cafeteria and went back into a storage room to see about the plywood the mayor had mentioned.
There was a piece leaning against the wall, about seven feet tall and five feet wide. It was heavy. There was no way the mayor was going to move it by himself, so Ellis carried it outside to the breezeway and leaned it against a wall.
Late in the afternoon, the mayor came back to town hall and saw it there. He dragged an old child-size school chair into the breezeway and set it in front of the plywood. He got a pencil. He sat there until the sun went down, sketching out a drawing of a boot.
He called someone about bringing over a jigsaw. He drove over to a hardware store in the county seat and bought some spray paint.
The next morning, the day of the parade, the mayor returned to town hall, sat down in front of the plywood and looked at his work from the night before. Not good enough, he thought.
“Could be taller,” he said to himself.
He erased a line on one side of the boot and drew it a few inches taller. He started to erase another line, but he dropped the eraser, which bounced just under the chair. He leaned down to pick it up. The chair tilted, and he wobbled before steadying himself again.
“Whew,” he said.
Trucks passed. The sun got higher. Lineup for the parade was now four hours away. The mayor drew the other side of the boot taller and looked at it again. Still too small. He tried drawing it taller, but he could only reach so far sitting in the chair. He stood up and leaned on his walker, balancing himself with one hand and reaching up with the other, trying to sketch the line.
It was a cloudless day, and the sun was directly on him. He sat down. He wiped his face. He looked at his watch and shook his head.
“Maybe spray this red . . .” he said to no one.
He looked at his watch again. His shirt was wet. He started erasing the lines again.
He dropped the eraser again.
“Oh Lord,” he said.
He looked at the plywood.
“I can’t do it like I like,” he said.
Trucks were passing. No one was coming.
It was after 2 p.m. when he decided to call Ellis.
“Mr. Johnson!” the mayor said, sweat rolling down his face as he tried to remain positive. “Listen, I’m up here finishing this boot? I’m making a couple of adjustments. I’m pretty well finished. Yeah. I couldn’t get what I needed. But. Oh, I see. Okay. Yeah. If we could?”
He hung up and was tracing over the lines again when Ellis arrived.
“I like that,” Ellis said, seeing what the mayor had done.
Ellis went inside the storage room, dragged out a couple of sawhorses, and laid the plywood flat on top to make things easier for the mayor. The mayor looked at his drawing again. He sketched the boot taller.
“Okay, I see,” Ellis said, watching. “I see what you’re doing now.”
The mayor kept drawing.
“You can go up right here,” Ellis said, pointing. “You can make everything bigger.”
The mayor kept going.
“Go on,” Ellis said. “Now all the way up.”
The mayor sketched a tab detail at the top of the boot.
“Looking good,” Ellis said, and when the mayor was done drawing, Ellis went to his truck, pulled out a jigsaw and began cutting around the lines until the last piece of wood fell away.
“You ready to spray?” Ellis said, and the mayor explained how he envisioned the paint.
“We gonna try the red here,” the mayor said.
“And blue here? And white here?” Ellis said.
“Yeah,” the mayor said, and Ellis started spraying the colors.
“This is going to come out fine, Mayor,” he said, and with less than an hour to go before the lineup, the boot was finished.
Ellis lifted it into the mayor’s truck, and the mayor drove down Highway 10 to the street off the courthouse square, where people in trucks and riding horses were starting to line up.
Darris was already there, waiting in his truck, the borrowed trailer hitched to it. The mayor reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a garbage bag full of American flags left over from so many July Fourths. Darris took them out and spiked them one after another into some hay bales he had bought with his own money, 18 flags in all. Then he lifted the boot out of the mayor’s truck, carried it onto the trailer and leaned it upright.
“Yeah,” the mayor said. “Right there, I think.”
The mayor’s wife arrived with a few kids from town, and they sat on the hay bales and one of them held a printed sign someone in town had made.
“Town of Lisman , Boots for Glory,” it read.
The mayor got into the cab of the truck. He looked out of the window.
All around, people were lining up along the street, most of them white, most from other parts of the county. A group of five men, some in cowboy hats, rode by on horses. Others buzzed around on little four-wheelers. A man on a motorcycle was dressed as a clown, his face painted white with a huge red smile. Three men wearing wigs and sequined dresses danced with abandon on a flatbed as speakers blared ’80s rock.
The head of the Choctaw County Chamber of Commerce zipped back and forth in a golf cart, checking his list to see who showed up. He checked off a town called Pennington, whose float was an SUV tied with balloons. He checked off Comfort Care Hospice, Graham Forestry, First US Bank and other businesses with trailers and trucks fitted with signs and fringe and bunting.
He looked up from his list, and near the end of the lineup he saw a trailer filled with hay, two long rows of American flags and a five-foot-tall, three-foot-wide plywood boot painted with red, white and blue stripes.
“Lisman?” he said.
The next morning, the clerk flipped the town hall sign to “open” and lit the candle, and the mayor was back in his office, looking at a list he had made of all the things he needed to get done.
“Ditches need cleaning,” read one item. “Policeman. Housing. Investors.”
The pink piece of paper with the sketch was still on his desk, and on top of it were two new messages, one from a person calling about redistricting, another about a pothole.
He needed to get the pothole filled. He needed to work on his State of the Town address. He needed to go over to the cafeteria, where Ellis was getting lunch ready for the kids in the feeding program, and the mayor was supposed to help hand out certificates of recognition.
There was so much to be done in a town of 500 people when those people only had each other to rely on. But for now, the mayor took a moment to think about all that had happened the day before, after the head of the chamber of commerce had called out “Lisman,” and the third float from the end of the parade had started to move forward.
He had rolled down his window. He had seen children scrambling for the candy that people were throwing off their floats. He had seen adults lost in conversations, a group of men leaning on the back of a pickup truck, and people eating hot dogs and not paying much attention as the trailer with the red, white and blue boot rolled by, and when the parade made the turn toward the courthouse square, he had started to wave.
He had waved at a man with white hair who did not wave back but smiled. He had waved to a group of women, one of whom called out “Hey y’all” and two of whom stood there. He had waved at Ezell and kept on waving as the float rolled past the crowds gathered around the courthouse square, where there was a tall statue honoring Confederate soldiers and nothing marking the other battles that had taken place there, no reminder at all other than a plywood boot and a mayor who had kept on waving, which was the power that Lisman had.
“It was refreshing for a few minutes,” the mayor said now, the moment over, the boot back to being a piece of plywood stored in a room. “Even if it was just a few minutes.”