When the Drum Major Died
by Anjuelle Floyd
December 28th, 1967.
America has taken a respite from the heated protests and firebombing that engulfed the nation the previous summer.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has begun laying out plans for his Poor People’s Campaign.
Florina Gavin Austin, two days married, has moved across state to Poinsettia, North Carolina where she will begin a new life as Mrs. Redmond Austin.
On approach to the house where she and her husband will live, Florina spies a woman sitting on the steps and smoking a cigarette.
“You must be Redmond’s new wife,” the woman says. “All of Poinsettia’s been talking about you.” Failing to introduce herself, the woman stands, flicks cigarette buts behind the shrubbery, and proceeds into what will become Florina’s new home.
The woman’s uncanny knowledge of the space that Florina will inhabit with her new husband leaves Florina feeling more than ill at ease.
Following the benediction at Sunday services, Florina witnesses the woman she will come to know as Agnes, caress Redmond’s cheek. The look in Redmond’s eyes betrays longing.
Agnes’ words to Redmond in a letter confirm Florina’s fears, “I will always love you.”
They also force Florina to confront her own secrets–her first marriage, one that neither her parents nor Redmond know of.
Florina and Agnes are neighbors. Their houses stand next to each other. Their husbands, Negro doctors in Poinsettia, hold prominent positions in the social and political life of their community. As their wives, Florina and Agnes occupy positions of similar regard.
When Agnes flees to Memphis and joins the Sanitation Workers Protests, all are aghast, none more than Florina. Yet she holds empathy for Agnes, respects Agnes’ strength in standing up for what she and all Negroes across America believe and desire: Civil Rights for their people in America.
As they move towards the fateful day, April 4th, 1968, when a great statesman of America, perhaps the greatest ever, will be killed, Florina learns that marriage exposes the vulnerabilities of all who pledge their trough and body. It casts an even greater shadows upon the ones who vow love unto death, and do not deliver what they have promised.
When the Drum Major Died shows what happens when we resist change in favor of worn out tradition, but also what can and does occur when we open our hearts and embrace the words, “ … be first in love … be first in generosity … He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. … ”