Twelve Bells

Twelve Bells

In April of 1968 I was 16 years old and a disc jockey at a radio station in Northeast Kentucky, quite a heady job for a high school junior. The station had an Associated Press Teletype machine that clicked away 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the age before “breaking news” referred to the release of the vacation plans of a movie star, news bulletins were rare and a very big deal. The most serious were accompanied by the ringing of 12 bells on the AP machine. I was at the radio station on April 4 in the evening when I heard 12 bells. I ran to the Teletype room and watched as the keys haltingly printed out the news of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We interrupted programming to read the announcement, but to me it was just news, little more.

Two months later, on June 6, I was doing the morning show. I arrived at the station at 5:30 AM to warm up the transmitter when I heard the same 12 bells, this time announcing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. When we signed on the air at 6:00 I led with the announcement of his death. Again, it was newsworthy, but to me it was just the news, little more.

I had been heavily indoctrinated to believe the Kennedy’s were eastern liberals hell bent on destroying the nation. I had been taught Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer who just wanted to stir up trouble. In the spring of 1968 I shed no tears. Truth be told, I was excited to be the one to break such important news in our little corner of the Bluegrass State. It was an opportunity to shine, to present the news with authority and panache.

I grew up in Ohio and Kentucky, a privileged white male in a middle class family. There was a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, message that I was part of a superior race and a member of the only religious fellowship that got it right. I was also a male in an age in which misogyny was a primary thread in the cultural tapestry. The world was mine for the asking. Why should I be concerned about people who probably did not deserve the opportunities they would not be given?

Last week I watched the movie Selma, about the famous 1965 civil rights march. When the movie ended I sat in my seat, stunned. The movie was superb, and David Oyelowo deserved an Oscar nomination for best actor, but the experience of watching the movie went far beyond any appreciation of fine filmmaking. The movie brought great sadness. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was there. I heard the 12 bells, read the bulletin over the air, but I had missed it. One of the most poignant, heartbreaking moments in modern history, and I missed it.

After the movie my friends Jen and Eric were comparing it to 12 Years A Slave, a movie they found life altering. Jen turned around in the car and said, “This one probably meant a lot to you, didn’t it?” I was overcome with such emotion I could barely speak. The movie indicted, convicted, and sentenced me. All I could think about were those 12 bells and my cavalier attitude reading the AP bulletin on that terrible evening 47 years ago.

Half a century later I finally get it. I understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s growing awareness that he would not die a natural death. Too many were too frightened by the thought of equality for those not like them, so he had to be silenced.

As a transgender woman I understand prejudice. I understand the frustration of being rejected and treated as an outsider just because of who you are. I understand the desire for revenge, and the restraint it takes to avoid lashing out. I understand the post-traumatic stress that comes from being mistreated by those convinced they are being thoughtful and caring when they let you go, but make sure you are “taken care of” with a good severance. I didn’t want a good severance. I wanted my job.

I understand how maddening it is when people say, “Well, you are the one who decided to be all in your face with your life, so you shouldn’t be surprised when you are treated badly.” I know how devastating it is when those who are sympathetic show no moral outrage. Because it is only when allies show outrage that real change occurs. But above all else, I understand I never knew how much I never knew.

As we drove back toward Longmont, my friends kindly but firmly told me my work is not done, that I too have been called to lessen suffering. They talked of my preaching when I was a male, and how the same spirit I exhibited then was needed now. They talked of how the church has failed as it did in the 60s, focusing too much on heaven and too little on creating a just and better world on earth.

When I got back to Lyons the house was empty. Cathy was in New York caring for grandchildren. I sat down in the living room, in my favorite big brown overstuffed chair, and I sobbed. The first time I sobbed was five years ago when I realized I had been called to live this honest and open life. I sobbed again when I screamed at God for making me this way, and not giving me the strength to make it all the way through life as a male. I sobbed when I realized how difficult my transition would be for Cathy and my children. And now I sobbed the tears of the repentant, the humbled, the tears of someone who finally knows what she never knew.

I still have no idea what it must have been like to live a lifetime on the back of the bus. For six decades I smugly took my seat in the front of the bus. Only of late have I come to know, in a small way, what so many have known for a lifetime – that those in power can be astonishingly cruel. Those same wise souls also know an eye for an eye does nothing but make the whole world blind.

Through much of the night I sat in that overstuffed chair thanking Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy, Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, and all the other heroes of the civil rights movement who made it possible for me, Paula Stone Williams, to live in these United States, a free woman.

Still, my friends are right. Much work remains to be done. In 32 states I do not have the legal right to keep a job after transitioning. In 32 states I can be denied housing. In all 50 states I do not have the right to keep my job if I work for a religious employer. And of course, there are those whose suffering is far, far greater than mine. What I face is nothing compared to what Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northup had to endure.

Last week I caught a tiny glimpse of how I might have felt had I known what was at stake on that evening in April of 1968 when 12 bells rang. I would have dropped to my knees over the tragic death of the man who gave me the right to write this blog, the man who lived the teachings of Jesus on the big stuff – justice for the poor and the oppressed. I would have understood that some day, because of Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent convictions, his soaring rhetoric and his dogged determination, I would be able to proudly sign my legal name, Paula Stone Williams.

And. So. It. Goes.


7 thoughts on “Twelve Bells

  1. Paula – I found your blog a few months ago by happenstance though I first met you many years ago through one of the churches you helped start.

    I just want you to know that I’m encouraged by your words on a weekly basis. They bring hope of promise and love to my life as I’ve been going through my own season of change.


  2. Paula

    I still remember, even though my parents were from eastern Kentucky and Texas, the sounds of my mother sobbing. I was just a kid. But, she’d watch the news story where they’d had the police dogs and fire hoses knocking down and terrifying protesters. My folks didn’t go to church much, but they could never understand prejudice. It seems odd now to realize how extraordinary that was in the 1950s and 60s.

    I still am a cloud of unknown and unanswered questions about your own struggles, but I grieve over the heartache and tears your had to experience – a grief mixed with anger when the pain has been made worse by some who’ve offered little except cruelty wrapped up in a thin layer of seeming kindness and then dosed out with a good deal of pious certainty. As for me, I’ve learned to be quite content to live within my own ambiguities. I also can’t afford to shorten my list of long term friends. It’s not a long list.

    Your post is powerful and, as others have commented, moving.

    Genuine friendships are so often the tools that challenge and transcend the smallness of our own safe and certain worlds.

    Thanks for being mine.

    Tom Lawson


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