A strong voice

Published 1:44 pm Sunday, November 2, 2008

It doesn’t seem that long ago, and in another way it was another lifetime ago.

We sat in the back of a primitive Baptist church in rural Rankin County, Mississippi in an area known more for producing pot than schoolchildren. A couple of weeks prior to this hastily called meeting on a non-church meeting night (Wednesday or Sunday), J.B. Torrence, the sheriff then, had nabbed a volunteer firefighter for selling dope out of the back of the metal building that housed a broken-down pump truck in this area called Robinhood Resorts.

Every community has its pious folks, I suppose. This one was no different. Some of the parents had gone to the school in protest of some books in the library. These parents put pressure in a Palinesque kind of way on the school librarian to remove these books. The discussions escalated with the county school district bringing in their attorneys.

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Anyhow, here we sat; two reporters and their pads in the back of this church made of wood with an old piano that looked like the out-of-tune one my grandmother gave up when I turned 10.

When I sat down, I didn’t notice her for looking at all the people in their go-to-work clothes or just-got-done working clothes. Some young reporters write down everything. I took copious notes — maybe the reason for the memory now.

At some point before the meeting began, the other reporter turned toward me and I recognized her immediately. Who wouldn’t? She was all over the Memphis Commercial Appeal — their No. 1 columnist. She had a voice. She used it.

We introduced ourselves. Rheta Grimsley Johnson.

My word, I was sitting right next to the Southern journalism equivalent of Paul McCartney and covering the same event. I was scared to speak.

About the time the congregation decided to read “dirty” parts out of the books in question — “Cujo,” “Up, in Seth’s Room” and “The Red Pony” — I overcame shyness to talk with her about why a group of people would want to ban John Steinbeck’s novel from the library. Why would anyone advocate destroying or keeping books away from people who wanted to read?

I don’t remember the stories word-for-word that came out of that meeting, but do remember taking a look at her style and listening to her voice that rang so crystal clear from the pages of the newspaper.

It is Rheta’s voice that draws a reader. She understands and loves her native South — from the woman who shells peas on the front porch to the folks in the backwoods who want to take books off the library shelves.

Many years have passed. I’m still as big a fan as I was nearly two decades ago when we sat together on the back pew in the little church. Rheta will be here in our town on Thursday at the library. She’ll likely read from her last book. I look forward to hearing her voice again.