John Moses Walkup Has Ridden A Bus Or Two

I hope I never see the hounds guardin’ the gates of Hell, mind you,

But I suspect they can’t be more fearful than the ones

That Sheriff Rainey had at his disposal down in Neshoba County.

He can laugh now (at least a bit, though briefly, and not without

A small yet discernible touch of sadness), as he has survived

To a fairly ripe old age—I’m some seventy-five years young now,

 Give or take a year; they weren’t too diligent about filin’ birth certificates

For colored folks back then– which many of those who rode the buses,

Who sat in jails, who had muzzles pointed at their heads

Or stuck in their mouths did not; he himself felt the stock

Of a deputy sheriff’s rifle at the nape of his neck in Bogue Chitto,

And, to this day, he has no idea why the man did not pull the trigger

When, any other time, he would have done so with no more forethought

Than he would waste on a woodchuck in the backyard

Or something that was or would appear to be a fox

Out by the chicken coops, but, as John Moses himself noted,

It didn’t seem a particularly good time to stick around and discuss the matter.


He tells me this as we share lunch—styrofoam-soaked coffee, salmon salad

On dry rolls the size of catcher’s mitts—in the teacher’s lounge

Between periods; John Moses has come, as a veteran of “The Struggle”

To bring some perspective to youngsters who have vague notions

Of Rosa Parks giving birth to Martin Luther King on the back of a bus

Some years before he came to Washington to give a speech,

Immediately after which Barack Obama stepped out from the crowd

To take the Oath of Office. In between battles with the sandwich,

John tells me about growing up in Selma, in a place and time where the walls

Between black and white, while invisible, were just as real

And every bit as beyond breach as those in Derry’s Bogside,

Or the bars between jailer and inmate—where you tipped your hat

Or stepped off the sidewalk into ankle-deep sludge if need be,

And how a deputy sheriff would stop by in the middle of the night

To take your father or brother away (the charge being related to

An ostensible breach of the peace or obstruction of gummin’t administration)

If the county road crew was a few bodies short. He relates all this

As calmly and matter-of-factly as if he were reading the weather forecast

Or the obituaries straight from the newspaper—You can talk about booze,

Or the needle, he says, but nothin’ rots a man faster than hate.


As we head down to the classroom on his way to leave another group

Of fifteen-year-olds open-mouthed and head-nodding in wonder and disbelief,

John Moses tells me he has been back to Selma once, and only once,

Since those heady, dangerous days long ago;

While there, he made it a point

To take the city bus that ran in his old neighborhood,

Just so he could sit in the seat directly behind the driver.

Man didn’t even notice me, he said,

Like my sittin’ there was the most natural thing in the world.

He smiles—just slightly—as I opine

That perhaps that is really all he ever wanted,

To sit where and when he pleased,

Just like anybody else. Well, maybe not everything,

He says softly, But it’s a goodly move in the right direction.


4 thoughts on “John Moses Walkup Has Ridden A Bus Or Two

  1. Timely post for sure….the voice was spot on as usual. I often think that it would be hard for someone in that situation to break old habits and how great of a day would it be to ride that bus like that and be able to feel human. Great short usual, I loved it.

  2. When I read this poem, I feel just so genuinely happy the inculcated divisions between races has been eroded over the last 40 years – not to say that prejudice and enmity no longer exist, but that the the world has made leaps and bounds in the right direction. This was the perfect poem for Mandela (and any other) Day. Thank you for linking up.

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