During yet another rainless day, former sharecropper James Windel Lemon tightened his fist, as if trying to squeeze water from air.
Then he shook his head and said, "I haven't seen a drought this bad since 1935. Back then it was so dry and dusty, the white Baptist church in Locust Grove invited the black churches over to pray for rain. We prayed and prayed. Prayed for hours. But the drought continued and we didn't get integration for another 35 years."
Though historic fact, the story's also a piquant aphorism. For Lemon, water and racial equality are human essentials, as deeply etched as the squint lines radiating from his eyes.
It was Lemon, prodded by legendary Washington High Principal Charles L. Harper, who started Henry County's first NAACP branch in 1943. By 1946 Henry had the state's third largest branch. By 1950, with the demise of cotton planting, streams of sharecroppers fled the county, and the branch shriveled up.
J.W. Lemon was born Nov. 9, 1919, in the house of his grandfather George Lemon, who himself was born during slavery. It was the elder Lemon, a farmer, cook, drifter, gambler and corn whiskey connoisseur, who supplied wood for building Locust Grove's Shoal Creek Baptist Church in 1903.
In 1930 and 1931 Shoal Creek's pastor was Mike King, who later changed his name to Martin Luther King Sr. His son, future civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., was then just an infant. When he cried during services, young J.W. took the future Nobel Peace Prize recipient outdoors, grabbed him by the heels and let him ride piggyback. "Mostly," said Lemon, "I'd get the boy laughing up a storm."
Through saturating himself in books, and through his own hardscrabble seasoning, Lemon learned there was no future in sharecropping. He knew men who produced a Herculean 40 bales of cotton a season and still owed the landlord money. Many men subsidized their incomes by gambling and making moonshine.
He learned there was no future in whiskey either. One Sunday in June, 1937, he drank a quart of corn whiskey and then managed to stumble home. He told his father he had "the blind staggers" before passing out for four days. When he awoke on Thursday the doctor said, "Son, if you hadn't been so young, you'd be deader 'n' hell."
He was only 24 when Harper, then the state NAACP chairman, convinced Lemon of his destiny.
NAACP membership cost $1, which many farmers couldn't afford. Lemon often paid the dues himself, boosting his personal income by working at an Army supply depot, playing "Georgia Skins" (a card game), running craps and selling whiskey.
When he went to the 1946 national convention in Cincinnati, the branch had 400 members; African-Americans were 42 percent of the county's population.
But around this time, he remembers getting off a bus in Locust Grove at 4 a.m. He began walking home when, like ghosts, 40 cars took shape and substance, seemingly from nowhere. They followed him slowly, through town, across the tracks and down Peeksville Road.
Lemon prayed the entire mile and a half, waiting for a gunshot to split the silence. After an eternity he reached home, soaked in sweat and terror, telling his father, "I thought they were going to get me that time."
During those NAACP years, Lemon figures he received enough hate letters to fill up five home mailboxes. He also had his barn burned, destroying his hay and killing his mules.
By 1950, membership dwindled as sharecroppers left Henry County. Besides, Lemon had a young family --- eventually three boys and wife Gladys, to whom he's been married 59 years --- and a widening spectrum of interests.
His primary focus shifted from the NAACP to registering blacks to vote, and also to his increasing involvement with the local Masonic lodge, where he became grand master in 1974.
Lyndon Wade, president of Atlanta's Urban League for 31 years, said that "most Americans saw the dramatic incidents associated with civil rights --- the fire hoses, the dogs, the crazed policemen. They didn't see the backbone, the people like Lemon who were in the trenches, fighting for schools, paved roads, equal employment or anything that made the community better."
Lemon retired from the Atlanta post office in 1984 and survived a bout of prostate cancer six years ago. If his activist fires have dimmed, they aren't extinguished.
"I come from the time of sharecropping," he said, "when what the boll weevil didn't get, the white man took. Things have changed a whole lot, but we've got a ways to go. We still need more black teachers, more black voters. These are things I'll continue to fight for as long as I'm going through this process called living."
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