Story and Photos by Andrew Dietz
“Hi, hey, come on over here. I gotta show you something,” I said to every unknown Barnes & Noble patron innocently grazing the aisle.
“No, I'm not gonna hurt ya'. Come here, closer. See this book: The Last Folk Hero? Nice, right? You have to buy this book. I heard it is awesome. I hear the author is absolutely brilliant...and actually quite sane. See the jacket photo? Look familiar? Yup, that’s me. “
That was ten years ago this month. April 2006. Excuse the lack of humility, please. That was the first time I ever saw my own book on the shelf of a bookstore and I was mildly delirious.
The Last Folk Hero is about certain outsider artists, untrained art innovators – or, folk artists, if you prefer – who create compulsively despite the grueling circumstances of their lives.
Take, for instance, Lonnie Holley…who may well be “The Last Folk Hero.” Story goes that he was born to a woman who ultimately had 27 kids (he was number 7); stolen from her at 2 years old; and sold for a bottle of whiskey at 4 years old. He spent much of his youth in the Alabama Industrial School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers in Mount Meigs, Alabama where the guards beat him senseless following escape attempts. By the time, Holley was thirty years old his art was touring the world with the Smithsonian. More recently, Holley’s music has been at the fore with two albums of his ethereal, bluesy-throated, electronic-keyboard-enhanced tunes.
Or consider the case of Thornton Dial. Dial was born in the middle of a cotton field in the midst of a county known for its high lynching rates of African-Americans. Raised in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama, Dial worked in steel mills, ice houses and railroad boxcar factories and whatever else he could find to scrape together money to keep his family fed. Meanwhile, he made things – he didn’t use the word art for them but neither did they have functional value. He wasn’t big on words at all as he couldn’t read or write. His wife told him to “get that shit out of the house.” So, he buried it out back where it stayed until a flood washed it away. Mr. Dial died on January 26, 2016. Well before his death, his larger paintings could sell for over six figures and his expressive work had been compared to and hung alongside some of the world’s most famous “trained” artists.
Ten years since releasing The Last Folk Hero, I am thinking again about the importance of outsiders. This time, it is in a broader sense.
Whether in art or science or business, it is the iconoclast and outsider who – at significant risk to his safety and sanity – unleashes innovations in seeing, feeling and thinking that change everything.
There is one chapter in The Last Folk Hero – Chapter 16: Graveyard Traveler - that especially feels like a celebration of these artists and their triumphs over adversity. It is the story of a “long strange trip” taken by bus with Jane Fonda serving as Cruise Director. It is the story of innovation in the midst of absurdity. It is the story of raw self-expression. It is the story of Selma, Alabama and of human dignity. It is, I hope, a story of creative redemption; an inspiration to innovate.
Walk through the stainless steel doors of Jane Fonda’s Atlanta loft and you enter a virtual vagina.
Fonda’s foyer was designed with undulating curves that call to mind a woman’s private parts. Walking in to Fonda’s loft one evening, a visitor wondered aloud about the color of the walls. Were they peach colored? Pink? Salmon? What was that color? Bill Arnett responded, “I don’t know. I’ve never been this deep inside of one before.”
Fonda is a vagina warrior. She has said, “If penises could do what vaginas could do, they’d be on postage stamps. There would be a twelve-foot one embronzed at the rotunda in Washington. Vaginas are just absolutely extraordinary.” One of the likely reasons that Fonda is fascinated with Thornton Dial is that he is a “vagina-friendly” artist. Of all the art in Fonda’s vast loft, nearly every piece is by Dial, and most are on the theme of women.
The Oscar-winning fitness-guru-cum-political-activist moved to Atlanta in 1991 following her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner. At the time, she was refashioning herself as a full-time philanthropist, concentrating on the arts and African American causes. Around 1998, Paul Arnett’s wife, Jennifer, was helping to write a grant proposal for the Turner Foundation when Fonda happened to ask what her husband did for a living. Jennifer’s reluctant response, “Art historian,” caught Fonda’s attention.
Within a month, Fonda was invited to Bill Arnett’s unkempt manse. “You had to suck it in to get in the door,” Fonda later recalls. “Their home was used as a warehouse for art, and it was so jammed that it was hard to stand back and see anything. It was packed with pieces by this seventy-two-year-old illiterate black man, some of which were probably ten feet long and a foot or more thick.” That man was Thornton Dial. Fonda was intrigued by Dial’s art, and she was equally smitten with Arnett. “Bill described Dial’s work with such sensitivity and detail. You can really disappear into a Dial work, and Bill did,” Fonda says. “He was a scruffy genius, radical, generous, verbose, passionate, and deeply knowledgeable and deeply caring. On that day I said to him, ‘Why didn’t I ever have a husband who could describe a work of art the way you do?’”
A year later, when Arnett moved his collection to a football-field-size warehouse near downtown Atlanta, Fonda paid a visit. She came first with her children and then with her interior decorator. The warehouse offered plenty of room to view Arnett’s collection, so Fonda was overwhelmed not only by Arnett this time, but also by the vast fields of art. “It started to get under my skin,” she said. “I found it so moving that these artists who had such unbelievably difficult lives did work that was so empathic, hopeful, patriotic, and spiritual. You would imagine that their work would be laced with rage, but it isn’t. These artists pick up objects that the rest of us throw away and give them a second chance. In a way, the materials give these artists a second chance.
“The works by Dial were really well displayed, and I swear to God it was the first time I really got it. When I could stand back and see the full paintings, it just took my breath away,” Fonda says. She was especially drawn to Dial’s treatment of women as subjects in his art. “He made works about how women have to disguise their innate power in order to pass,” she recalls. “They came off the wall and kind of grabbed me by the throat.” Then and there, Fonda decided to fill her loft apartment and the offices of her nonprofit organization with works by Thornton Dial.
By early 2001, Jane Fonda had agreed to invest $1 million in Arnett’s Tinwood publishing business. She had yet to meet any of the artists in person, though. So Arnett decided that something must be done.
The answer was clear: an Alabama road trip.
For weeks, Fonda and Arnett brainstormed about who else would join the excursion. To begin with, there was family. As the oldest son and the art historian of the Arnett clan, Bill’s son Paul was the first pick. Arnett’s son Matt was next, because he could coordinate the trip. Bill’s youngest son, Tom, was at the University of Texas and wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, so he was invited for the ride.
Fonda weighed in with her own family choices. Jane wanted her daughter Vanessa Vadim to come. Vadim’s toddler son, Malcolm, joined the merry band. And Jane wanted her son Troy, her offspring with ex-husband Tom Hayden, to be there.
Arnett and Fonda agreed that Peter Marzio, executive director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, should be a member of the crew. Since Marzio was coming, it made sense to invite the Gee’s Bend exhibition curators. That put Jane Livingston and John Beardsley on the list. Then there was Larry Rinder, curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who was considering hosting the Gee’s Bend exhibition after its run in Houston.
Arnett’s friend Amiri Baraka (aka Leroi Jones) was invited to come along. Baraka was a writer and militant civil rights activist in the 1960s who, after the Newark race riot in 1967, penned poems like this: “We must make our own world, man, our own world, and we cannot do this unless the white man is dead.” Baraka had written essays for Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger and Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep books, and he was a vocal champion of artists like Dial and Holley.
Fonda invited documentary filmmaker Carol Cassidy. Cassidy hoped to make a series of films about Arnett’s artists and would record the Alabama trip. As backup, Cassidy invited a friend of hers, Becky Smith. Smith was on the faculty of the UCLA film school, and would keep the camera rolling on this tour.
Another invitee of the Arnetts was Bob Land, a freelance production editor working with the family since the mid-1990s on the Souls Grown Deep books and ultimately on books about the quilts as well. Finally there was Matt Arnett’s friend, Lynn Sledge. Sledge was a writer from Mobile, Alabama, whose husband served as a book critic for the Mobile Register, and she was working with him on a review of Souls Grown Deep. That was enough to qualify her, in Fonda’s view, as a journalist. Fonda didn’t want any journalists along for the ride, so Sledge was left to follow behind in her own car.
Nearly twenty people would begin the journey, all in support of Jane Fonda’s folk art education. More would join the faculty as Fonda progressed through Alabama’s interior.
To seat the battalion, Matt Arnett chartered a streamliner that could have passed as Willie Nelson’s tour bus: A gleaming marine-blue luxury coach with plush seats and mirrors and retro-colored fabric encased in chrome. There was a refrigerator and wet bar, a restroom, and a lounge in the rear.
In early May 2001 the bus left Atlanta, full with Fonda’s merry pranksters, ready to roll down the dusty red-clay roads of middle Alabama.
Forty years earlier, on Mother’s Day 1961, a Greyhound bus traveled the same route from Atlanta.
A dozen or so whites and blacks, mostly college students, were on board to test the federal law against segregation on interstate transit. They sat defiantly—sometimes together, sometimes with whites in the back of the bus and blacks in the front—refusing to move despite constant harassment. As the first bus pulled into Anniston, Alabama, an angry mob slashed the tires. The driver kept his foot on the gas, but the welcoming committee from the Anniston station followed. When the bus’s tires went flat not far out of town, the driver pulled the vehicle to the side of the road, jumped out and ran. The crowd that was following surrounded the bus, trapping the passengers inside. Someone tossed a firebomb inside the bus, and it burst into flames as the gas tank blew and the mob moved back. The Freedom Riders saw their chance to escape, but as they stumbled out of the burning bus, the mob surged forward again waving lead pipes and baseball bats. One rider, a former college professor, suffered permanent brain damage.
Jane Fonda’s bus also made its first stop in Anniston. But as much as they may have felt like modern-day Freedom Riders, Fonda’s gang spent the night at the Victoria Inn—a gracious nineteenth-century southern home turned bed-and-breakfast—rather than the Anniston hospital.
In the morning, the crew washed, filled their bellies, and cruised to Lonnie Holley’s house in Harpersville. The raw materials of self-taught artistry lay scattered like toys across a child’s playroom—dumpster relics waiting to be shaped into objects of transcendent meaning: a crumpled lounge chair, a tattered rubber hose, some bent aluminum siding, a toddler’s safety gate, a street sign. Abandoned vehicles decayed in the yard.
And in the midst of it was Holley, sporting a black baseball cap encrusted in buttons and pins. A yellow- and blue-striped short-sleeved shirt draped his lean frame. Wandering around his yard, tilling his artifacts, Holley seemed at one moment to be one of those artifacts and at another to be a bumblebee flitting through the refuse.
Lonnie Holley and Jane Fonda squatted on the ground. If Fonda was on this trip to learn about African American vernacular art, she was now at the feet of the senior professor of folk. The crowd looked on. Holley described as he built, with his fingers in constant movement and arms sweeping gestures that rattled his bracelets in the wind and painted images in the air. He caressed a sandlike stone as he bent over and carved it into shape, sensually tracing curves with his hand. Holley spoke in a storyteller’s manner. “I gone come down the side of the nose and bring it in real good,” he sang as he scraped a razor alongside the stone face. “This goin’ be a beautiful piece. You have to thank God for this kind of ability and talent,” Holley said of himself. And the group agreed. By the time the caravan was ready to leave, Jane Fonda and her pilgrims were completely in the grip of Holley’s spell. Fonda asked him to ride the bus for the rest of the trip, and without delay he climbed aboard.
Nassau Avenue is a residential street just off of Martin Luther King Drive near downtown Birmingham. As the deluxe bus wheeled up Nassau, neighbors took notice. They peeked through Venetian blinds, opened screen doors, and came out onto their front stoops. Cautiously, a few at a time, they walked up the street to see why this strange craft had landed in their world. Soon, a large crowd surrounded the bus and moved toward the chain-link fence that protected Joe and Hilda Minter’s sculpture garden.
Joe and Hilda Minter’s place popped up like a visual jack-in-the-box at the end of a sloping road lined with modest working-class homes. It was an ocean-blue shanty overlooking a large cemetery.
The Minter’s sprawling yard was cluttered with found-object assemblages. The entire collection paid tribute to the history of Africans in America. Joe was sixty years old with a wiry, gray-black beard and hair stuffed under a Panama hat and pinned back by oversized Foster Grants.
He had been building this garden since 1989, ten years after his furniture-making career ended due to a combined layoff and work-related eye injury. Minter saw his garden as a living work of art, a history book in three dimensions. The sculptures were crafted from whatever he could scrape up at the flea market or the junkyard: car parts, abandoned furniture, chains, blenders, roofing supplies. Despite his scrap-metal garden and luminescent house, Joe Minter would often lament that it was “just like I’m invisible here.” He may have been unnoticed by Birmingham at large, but not by his neighbors. They thought he was a crackpot—that is, until the bus showed up.
“When the bus come up, didn’t nobody know what was going on. I didn’t tell nobody, so when the bus come up everybody started coming out on the porch. They said a bus got lost and come up here,” Hilda Minter would later reminisce.
Then word spread that a movie star was there to visit Joe and his wife Hilda. Was it Shirley MacLaine? Cher? No, it was Jane Fonda and a whole bunch of artist people. The neighbors started to wonder if maybe there was something to all that stuff in Joe’s yard after all.
“See that? That the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma,” Joe told the crowd while he pointed to a sculpture.
“They called it ‘Bloody Sunday.’ That’s a whole story right there that you can tell. Tell you how the six hundred demonstrators were beat back,” Joe said.
Joe Minter’s bridge was built as a symbolic replica of the one in Selma and was constructed out of wood planks. As the group walked over Minter’s bridge from one side, they met the righteous, haunting gaze of a half-dozen African warriors with red and yellow masks, scrap-wood bodies, and armor made of chrome hubcaps. With metal crutches and ski poles for arms, the soldiers reached for the heavens in either a plea for mercy or a cry for revenge.
Nearby was a piece that Joe told the group was Two Buses in One: The Freedom Riders and the Bus Boycott. It stood on a corrugated metal base with an actual bus bumper and steering wheel and outfitted with a rusted iron seat from an old tractor. The bumper held two painted license plates. One read, “Heart of Dixie, Alabama ’61.” The year of the Freedom Rides.
While Arnett, Fonda, and their crew marched through civil rights history in Joe Minter’s backyard and while the neighbors were scratching their heads, the police arrived. An officer flexed his biceps, adjusted his mirrored sunglasses, and approached Paul Arnett.
“What’s going on around here? Anybody in there doing anything the homeowner objects to?” the cop asked.
“No, sir. The Minters are friends of ours. We’re just visiting,” Paul Arnett replied.
But the officer didn’t hear the response. He was busy looking over Paul’s shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of Jane Fonda.
Fonda’s magic bus drove across Birmingham to McCalla on the outskirts of Bessemer.
It rolled through the metal security gate at the entrance to the Dial compound and up the wooded hillside property to a roundabout in front of Thornton Dial’s gray wood-and-stone contemporary house. Hilda and Joe Minter were now part of the entourage.
The entire extended Dial family was there. Thornton and Clara Mae Dial shook hands with the visitors, seemingly unaffected by the power and celebrity in their midst. But Jane Fonda was affected dramatically. She cried.
Peter Marzio shook Thornton Dial’s hand, made polite talk. But his attention was riveted by what he saw in the distance where a black steel mass rose up on one end and sloped back down on the other, an enormous semicircular sculpture. Marzio approached the sculpture and stopped, silent and alone. He cut a dashing figure, tall and firm, sporting a tan blazer, brown slacks, white shirt, and a beige tie. His tinted shades and square jaw gave him movie-star polish. He gazed at the sculpture. Abstract cars rolled alongside it. Metal figures danced along the top of it. A tiger stalked. Marzio turned away to walk by himself down a path alongside the driveway.
The Arnetts looked at each other, then someone ran to catch up with Marzio and bring him back to the group. “That thing right there is a fucking masterpiece!” Marzio repeated, over and over again, as he walked back toward the sculpture.
“I want to buy it for my museum. I think this,” he said pointing to Dial, “is one of the greatest artists in the world in the twentieth century.”
In his spiral-bound notepad, Marzio sketched Dial’s sculpture that was made in honor of the heroes of “Bloody Sunday.” Dial simply called it The Bridge. As Marzio measured the dimensions, Fonda came over. By contrast, she was dressed for an Earth Day Summit. Her short-cropped hair stuck out from beneath an orange-brimmed Gee’s Bend baseball cap. She wore a patterned blue blouse untucked and hanging over a black T-shirt, small dangly earrings spinning from her earlobes.
She approached Marzio gingerly, “Now are you thinking this would become a part of your permanent collection?”
“That would be the idea,” Marzio said. “It deserves a really great location, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Fonda. “I can imagine conservators giving you a fit, saying you would spend a fortune keeping it up.”
“So what?” replied Marzio. “It’s a goddamn masterpiece. It’s so coherent, so upbeat, so promising!” Marzio started laughing. Admiring. “Think of what he’s given us.”
Fonda turned the conversation back to Dial. He showed her the seat that he made from Dial Metal Patterns’ material in honor of Rosa Parks. It was an iron bus bench. “This here is where she sat,” he said with “she” meaning the black seamstress who, in 1955, galvanized the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat for a white man. “I see you, I see a woman. I see that man, I see him as a man. White, black, whatever, a man’s just a man. That’s the way I see life,” he told Fonda.
Fonda asked Dial to get on the bus and take the rest of the trip with the group. Reluctant by nature, he was so swept up in the excitement of the day that he heard himself say yes before he could think of reasons to stay home. He got on board, donning a Gee’s Bend cap, a blue work shirt buttoned to the top, and an uneasy smile.
Jane Fonda was hostess and field-trip chaperone.
She tried her best not to dominate, but rather to facilitate the dialogue. She would ask questions, probe, and listen, and in addition to inviting artists to join the entourage Fonda encouraged the group to bring other living things on board. Things like a duckling, a baby quail, and a small yellow chick that they picked up along the way.
Someone wanted to get a pig, but the group put a stop to that. Fonda rode for a while with the baby duckling sitting on her shoulder. She told a story of the time as a child when she put a chick in her mouth to hide it.
Lonnie Holley was the entertainment coordinator. He traveled with a sack of art supplies. He also used anything else he could find: pencils, crayons, paper, yarn, and wire. When the bus stopped, he scavenged the ground, collected objects from the side of the road, and wove them into makeshift masterpieces. He picked up a rock, painted it, and presented it to Jane.
At times, ten conversations took place around Holley as the bus rolled along. Arnett could be heard telling stories of the people who stood in his way. But Holley was oblivious. Half-glasses dangled from his neck—reading spectacles with a librarian’s chain. Holley reached into his bag and pulled out a roll of heavy yarn and some rags. He cut off pieces and passed them out to the group.
“Look around,” he said. “Use what you see. Create a piece of art that speaks from your heart. Use the string, use the paper, the cloth, the fabrics, whatever. Then we will tie all the strings together. We goin’ make something very beautiful.”
Jane Fonda completed her string art project and handed it to Lonnie to tie together with the others. “This is a vagina,” she said.
The travelers had been invited to a revival service at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church beyond the notch known as Gee’s Bend, but while the citizens of Gee’s Bend were fond of the Arnetts and welcomed the visitors, the minister of Pleasant Grove held a contrary view. Scheduled to make a simple welcome, five minutes at most, the minister launched into a tirade. He rocked back and forth as he bellowed: a big man with a big ruby ring, a white collarless shirt buttoned to the top, a dark jacket, and tinted glasses.
The crowd sat motionless in the pews while he lifted his angry voice, “Beware the outsiders who come to exploit you."
"Beware the city people who are going to film us so they can say, ‘Oh look at these poor dumb country folk,’ present us in a bad light, and then forget us.” He shook his ruby-ringed finger at Bill Arnett. “You people are here under false pretenses. This is not just about quilts. We’re not a bunch of unsophisticated black folk. Don’t take me for a fool.”
The room was quiet. Not even an usher stirred. Then Lonnie Holley’s seat creaked. Holley stood up, addressed the crowd. “My name is Lonnie Bradley Holley, African American artist from Birmingham, and I am very glad to be here,” he said. Holley looked past the faces of the Gee’s Bend residents, past the choir, the deacon and deaconess board, past all of the people he traveled with that day, directly into the minister’s eyes. “With all due respect, you better be looking at your own pretenses. You drive up here in your gold Cadillac with your big jewelry and big talk, and you put down these people I’m with. I think you need to think about jealousy and animosity around here. These people are good people. Best people I know. They’ve done more for me and other artists than anyone I know, black or white.” Women in their seats crossed their legs, waved fans.
Then Joe Minter stood to testify, “If not for Bill Arnett, I never never would have been appreciated.”
The minister listened, tightening. He wrote down Holley and Minter’s names as they got up to speak—his own blacklist.
The hushed audience wondered what was next. Slowly but deliberately, Thornton Dial stood up—a man reticent in front of his own family members, no less a crowd of strangers. He faced the congregation and said, “I just want to say that I’m Thornton Dial. I’m an artist too, and I want to thank you for having me here.” Then he turned to the minister, his head high, his back straight, and said, “Mr. Arnett, he a trailblazer. We been on this trail fifteen years, me and him. I love him for what he’s done. He’s the cause of all this here. Mr. Arnett and his friends are the finest people. He’s got all the blessings from me. That’s all.” And then Thornton Dial sat back down.
The front doors of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church look out onto a long dusty road that climbs a hill and then disappears down the other side. Not fifteen minutes after the service ended, pairs of Gee’s Bend women walked slowly over that hill and toward the church, carrying dishes of home-cooked roast and yams and corn and cornbread and biscuits and gravy. When they arrived they sang gospel songs that rang out over the murmur of voices. In time—over the sound of tongues and lips licking fingers and utensils hitting plates—laughter emerged. Everyone except the minister enjoyed the feast.
Selma, Alabama, hit the national radar on March 7, 1965. Then-Governor George Wallace positioned state troopers along the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to help “protect” the crowd. County Sheriff Jim Clark had his policemen out on horseback in support of the troopers.
John Lewis, a twenty-five-year-old sharecropper’s son and one of the original Freedom Riders, led the demonstrators across the bridge that fateful Sunday in search of more equitable voting rights for blacks. Civil rights activists had for years been waging an unsuccessful effort to register black voters in the Selma area. After an aborted demonstration ended in the violent death of one protester, some six hundred voting rights demonstrators planned to march from Selma to Montgomery to gain attention for their struggle. But as the marchers came across the bridge, they were met violently by troops who lunged at the demonstrators with nightsticks, bullwhips, and tear gas. The horses trampled some protesters, and others went down in the gaseous air. Sixty-five people were wounded, including seventeen people packed in ambulances to the local hospital.
Now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, Lewis told a Life magazine reporter years later, “On that day we thought that we would be arrested and jailed. We had no idea that we would be beat. I remember we left that little church, Brown Chapel, walked through the streets of Selma, got to the foot of the bridge. We were walking in twos when we came over the apex of the bridge and saw a sea of blue. It was the Alabama state troopers.”
Two weeks later, on March 21, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters successfully marched across the bridge, down Highway 80 and through to Montgomery, where they held a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. By the time they reached Montgomery, twenty-five thousand marchers had joined Dr. King. Not long after, in August 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
For these reasons the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the main Selma attraction for Jane Fonda’s guests. Holley, Minter, and Dial had all created art in memory of Bloody Sunday, but none had ever seen the bridge.
The night the bus drove into Selma, the party stayed at the St. James Hotel. The St. James, which opened in 1837, was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. Benjamin Sterling Turner, who later became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress, then managed the hotel. Perched on the banks of the Alabama River, the stately southern residence overlooked the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Joe Minter stood at the base of the bridge the next morning as the group emerged from the St. James. He held a five-foot-long staff topped with bells for the hike across the arching span.
“As I stand here, I could feel the pressure the people must have felt. They had it in they hearts that they were gonna throw away their shackles. Me and my children, we not gonna suffer no more,” Joe preached. “Sunday morning the most segregated hour in the world—people all in they separate churches. But we back here together.”
Thornton Dial struggled to field a barrage of questions that poured at him despite Minter’s ongoing sermon and shifted awkwardly at Joe Minter’s side.
“Did you sleep good, Mr. Dial?” someone asked.
“Mr. Dial, what do you make of all this?” queried another.
“Have you ever been here before, Mr. Dial?” one wondered.
“Mr. Dial, what significance does this bridge have for you?” they persisted.
Dial strained to match Minter’s tone. “Great memories of Martin Luther King and marches,” he replied. “I didn’t take part, but I heard so much about it.” Dial’s tank-top T-shirt peered through his pressed white dress shirt.
But it was Lonnie Holley who in a trance took the first steps toward the bridge. Holley walked, leaned down, picked up trash, scavenged for art supplies, while Minter preached.
“God is the ultimate recycler,” Minter said.
Then the three men moved up the bridge together. Holley removed his sandals and strolled barefoot. They were approaching sacred ground. Halfway up the sloping expanse, Holley spotted a plank across the road, a solid board like that was a healthy catch. He excused himself, said, “I’m gonna break the law for just a minute now.” He jumped barefoot into the street, dodging oncoming traffic. While Joe Minter egged him on, “Get that board. He gonna get that board! Testify to it. Tell ’em.” At a sprinter’s pace, Holley hot-footed across the four-lane road, grabbed the board, swung around, and tore back across the street like a high stepper in the Tuskegee marching band.
Cars swished past the men. They walked carefree under the high steel arch. This bridge was theirs.