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In ‘Grant Park,’ Leonard Pitts Jr. explores four decades of race relations

‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.
‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s third novel, Grant Park, will be released Tuesday. This time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist digs ever deeper into the past four decades of race relations in America, where two veteran journalists, a superstar black columnist and his unheralded white editor, must come to terms with the choices each made as young men during the Civil Rights Movement. The Miami Herald will publish three excerpts this week.

Chapter One:

Martin Luther King stood at the railing, facing west. The moon was a pale crescent just rising in early twilight to share the sky with a waning sun. He leaned over, joking with the men in the parking lot below. A couple of them were wrestling playfully with James Orange, a good-natured man with a build like a brick wall.

“Now, you be careful with preachers half your size,” King teased him.

“Dr. King,” called Orange in a plaintive voice, “it’s two of them and one of me. You should be asking them not to hurt me.”

“Doc,” someone called out from below, “this is Ben Branch. You remember Ben.”

“Oh yes,” said King. “He’s my man. How are ya, Ben?”

Another voice yelled up from below. “Glad to see you, Doc.”

As Malcolm Toussaint moved toward King, it struck him that the preacher seemed somehow lighter than he had the last time Malcolm had seen him. It had been late one night a week before, by the Dumpsters out back of the Holiday Inn. The man Malcolm met that night had seemed … weighted, so much so that even Malcolm had found himself concerned and moved — Malcolm, who had long scorned the great reverend doctor, who had, in the fashion of other young men hip, impatient and cruel, mocked him as “De Lawd.”

But that was before Malcolm had met the man. That was before they had talked. Now he moved toward King, his mind roiling with the decision that had sprung from that moment, the news he had come to share. King, he knew, would be pleased. There would be a smile, perhaps a heavy hand clamping on Malcolm’s shoulder. “Good for you, Brother Malcolm,” he would say. “Good for you.”

Malcolm was vaguely amused to find himself here on this balcony, anticipating this man’s approval. If you had told him just a few days ago that he would be here, ready to go back to school, ready to embrace nonviolent protest, he would have laughed. But that, too, was before.

Malcolm meant to raise his hand just then, to catch King’s attention, but a movement caught his eye. Just a reflected ray of the dying sun, really, glinting off something in a window across the street. Something that — he knew this instinctively — should not have been there. He wondered distractedly what it was.

King’s voice drew him back. “I want you to sing it like you’ve never sung it before,” he was calling to someone in the parking lot below. “Sing it real pretty.”

And Malcolm realized he had missed something, because he had no idea what they were talking about. His attention had been distracted by … what was that?

“It’s getting chilly.” Yet another voice calling to King from below. “I think you’ll need a topcoat.”

“Okay, Jonesy,” King was saying. “You really know how to take good care of me.”

And here, the moment breaks, time fracturing as time sometimes will into its component parts, until an event is no longer composed of things happening in a sequence, but somehow all happens at once. And you can see and touch and live all the smaller moments inside the right now. This is how it is for Malcolm Toussaint now.

King is laughing. Malcolm is taking a step toward him. King is straightening. Laughter is echoing from below. King is reaching into a pocket for his cigarettes. He is becoming aware of Malcolm on his left. His head is coming around. There are the bare beginnings of a welcoming smile.

And Malcolm knows. Suddenly knows. And Malcolm is leaping, leaping across space, across time itself, becoming airborne — he was sure of it, that detail felt right, even though by this time King is barely six feet away. Malcolm grabbing two hands full of expensive silk, yanking Martin Luther King off balance, yanking him down hard in the same instant they all hear the popping sound like a firecracker, in the same instant he feels the soft-nosed 30.06 bullet whistle past his cheek like a phantom breath, in the same instant he falls awkwardly across King’s chest.

And then …

And then time seems to reel for a crazy breathless moment, as if deciding what to do now. The fulcrum of history teetering, the future hanging, suspended in midair. Until all at once and with a brutal force, time decides itself and slams back into gear.

A woman shrieked.

Someone yelled, “Somebody is shooting!”

Someone yelled, “Doc, are you OK?”

Someone yelled, “Stay down!”

Malcolm’s breath was ragged in his own ears. His heart hammered like drums. Then from beneath him, he heard a familiar baritone voice say calmly, very calmly, but yet, with a touch of breathless wonder.

“Oh my God. Was that a gunshot?”

Their eyes met. Malcolm didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak. “Brother Malcolm,” said Martin Luther King, his voice still suffused with wonder and yet, also, an almost unnatural calm, “I think you just saved my life.”

The next excerpt from Leonard Pitts Jr.’s novel ‘Grant Park’ will be published Tuesday.

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