39 pages 1 hour read

Susan Carol McCarthy

Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Inspired by real events, Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands is Susan Carol McCarthy’s debut novel, published in 2002. The novel received the Chautauqua South Fiction Prize, and it tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Reesa McMahon who lives in Mayflower, Florida. Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands is considered both a Bildungsroman as well as a work of historical fiction thanks to the presence of historical figures important to the American civil rights movement like Thurgood Marshall and Harry Moore.

In the novel, the writer directly confronts the horrors of racism that characterized many interactions between Black people and White people in certain parts of the American Deep South during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. Reesa is White, but her closest friend, a 19-year-old named Marvin Cully, is Black, and when he is ruthlessly murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, Reesa and her family become involved in the efforts to bring Marvin’s killers to justice.

Plot Summary

Prior to the opening of the story, set in the early 1950s, Reesa’s family had migrated from the North to a town in Central Florida called Mayflower in order to become citrus growers. Early one morning, before sunrise, Reesa wakes up to learn that her close friend Marvin, who is 19 years old and Black, is missing. Within a few hours, Reesa’s father, Warren, and Luther, Marvin’s father, discover that Marvin has been beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan. Marvin’s parents, Luther and Armetta Cully, quickly become the McMahon’s closest friends as together they try to bring Marvin’s murderers to justice.

Later, while eating lunch at a local restaurant, Grandmother Doto and Reesa’s brothers overhear some White men discussing a murder; they quickly realize they are talking about Marvin’s death. When Doto and Reesa’s two brothers, Ren and Mitchell, share what they heard with Reesa’s parents, they come up with a plan—they will write to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, the first of several historical characters in the story. A response, however, never arrives.

One night in May, the McMahons receive important guests who have taken an interest in Marvin’s case: the attorney Thurgood Marshall (later, a Supreme Court Justice) and Mr. Harry T. Moore (the state secretary of the NAACP), both of whom are Black men who hold significant roles in the civil rights movement in America at this time. The family gathers to report what they know about Marvin’s death. The two men are gravely concerned about the news of the Klan’s activities, which include other murders, beatings, and bombings, but they point out that bringing the Klan to justice would be difficult since their crimes all fall under state jurisdiction and Florida authorities are controlled by the Klan. Only civil rights infractions fall under federal laws.

Some progress appears to take place when two young Black men named Samuel and Walter Lee are granted new trials in a rape case, but the sheriff, a White man, shoots Samuel and badly wounds Walter Lee. Walter Lee’s explanations mean nothing when compared to the words of the sheriff and the jury pronounces Samuel’s death a “justifiable homicide.” Warren, Reesa’s father, warns Harry to watch his back; Harry replies that he always carries a loaded weapon.

Christmas arrives, but everyone’s happiness is interrupted when friends and neighbors of the McMahons, the grocers Sal and Sophia, who are Italian and Catholic, come to the McMahon house to say farewell. They have been repeatedly threatened by the Klan and plan to move near their family in Tampa. The McMahon family decides to open the store to the neighborhood and sell as many of Sal and Sophia’s goods as possible to minimize their financial loss in leaving their store. They receive the news that Harry Moore has been killed in a bombing.

Soon the McMahons receive a visit from the FBI. Agent James Jameson makes a call, and once again, the McMahons are hopeful that the Klan will be brought to justice. Luther and Warren give Agent Jameson extensive information that Luther has gleaned from the women who sing in his church choir.

One day, Reesa’s brother Ren and his friend Petey happen upon a Klan ceremony. When the boys make fun of the men, Ren is grazed by bird shot across his cheek and over his ear. Warren decides to dynamite the Klan’s fishing camp, but Agent Jameson offers a better alternative—to sneak into the fishing camp and confiscate the rolls and records. Warren agrees. Seventeen-year-old Robert volunteers to go with him.

Inside the clapboard building at the camp, the two are astounded by what they see—sumptuous tongue-in-groove cypress walls, a throne-like chair, and ceilings adorned with bright paintings in red, black, and gold. After a flat tire and a frightening encounter with a water moccasin, the two men return home, successful in their endeavor.

Even with this shocking evidence the two have gathered, little can be done about the Klan’s crimes because they are under Florida’s jurisdiction. Several Klansmen, however, are indicted for perjury because they lied about their Klan membership. When the Klan realizes who stole their records, they send two younger men with ax handles to beat Warren, unsuccessfully.

Warren takes his family into town to find Emmett Casselton, the grand Cyklops, or the leader of the local Klan. The children stay in the truck with a shotgun visible. Warren corners Casselton outside a diner and makes a gentleman’s agreement with Casselton: if the Klan disbands, Warren will not dynamite their headquarters and other property. Casselton agrees.

The family races home because they have only fifteen minutes to uphold their end of the bargain. Quickly, Warren and Luther set off all their dynamite in the sinkhole. After the giant explosion, the sinkhole gushes with water from an underground river.