The Smile that Changed the World

The Short and Happy Life of Marcus Mitchell

By Al Blanton

The posters still hang on the wall.

It’s been over twenty-three years since Marcus Mitchell left this earth for a better place, but the remnants of his life remain. Inside a modest home in West Jasper, a menagerie of items pay tribute to the adorations of Marcus’s life. Marcus was a basketball player and he loved the Los Angeles Lakers. In his room, a poster of Magic Johnson—midair, leg-up, face-twisted—stretches out on one wall. On another, a fading poster of Deion Sanders. Pictures of his high school prom, framed and gathering dust, rest on a dresser.

Johnny Mitchell, Marcus’s father, hasn’t moved much out of this room, preferring to leave it essentially the way it looked the night of October 30, 1993, when a drunk driver swerved across the median on a dark road in Jefferson County and took his son’s life.

Tonight Johnny sits alone on a bench in downtown Jasper, Ala., thumbing a cell phone as the sun is angelically dipping, its pink and lavender hues spreading like Monet brushstrokes across the sky.

Johnny is an older man now, a veteran at the power company and a wiser facsimile of the young man of forty who once lost a son. The years, twenty-three of them, seem to have blown by, like the wind they keep charging, and in Johnny’s mind it seems like only yesterday since he buried his son.

His whole life in front of him, Marcus was a sophomore at Tuskegee University, at the time of his death. He had walked-on to the basketball team the year previous and was looking forward to the upcoming season.

Marcus and friends had planned on attending the Magic City Classic, an annual contest pitting Alabama A&M and Alabama State at Legion Field in Birmingham, held that weekend. On Friday night, he attended a party and was driving back to his home in Jasper when the accident happened. Marcus and a friend were traveling down Highway 78 near the Sayre community when a car breached the median and hit him head on. The driver had just left a strip club, and in his drunkenness and sweat made a choice that would reverberate far beyond the evening.

Marla Mitchell, Marcus’s sister who was in the tenth grade at the time, remembers the phone call she received in the wee hours of the morning. “I remember we were asleep and we got a phone call, letting us know that he had had an accident,” she says. “And we didn’t know what to do. We got dressed and drove over.”

Marcus had been sent to Carraway Hospital just off of Finley Avenue in Birmingham, where he was fighting for his life.

On the way to the hospital, the Mitchell family passed by the scene of the accident and saw the lights and the bottled-up traffic but did not see the rumpled red JEEP. Johnny’s sister drove and was so shaken that she later ran a red light on Finley and was hit by another vehicle. A taxicab took the family to Carraway, and the driver didn’t charge them.

When the Mitchells arrived at the hospital, Marcus was still alive. Friends and family soon began to gather, and Marla remained hopeful. “I remember so many people being there because he had a lot of friends. I was consoling everybody, saying, ‘He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be all right.’ But he wasn’t,” Marla says, her voice trailing off.

Doctors soon informed the family of grave news, and Johnny and his wife, Wanda, made the gut-wrenching decision to take their only son off life support. “That’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our life,” Johnny says reflectively.

Marcus Mitchell died that morning.

Days later a funeral service was held at First Baptist Church on Corona Avenue, where hundreds of people—a mosaic of black and white, rich and poor—paid their respects to the bright and fun-loving 19-year-old kid.

Support would bleed over into the next few weeks as family and friends stayed tightly alongside the family. Though the time is mostly a blur, Marla remembers her room being chock-full of people and her uncle Dwight praying with the family. Johnny remembers grace that came in the form of friends such as Rusty Richardson and Shelly Williams, and the power company, which paid for his counseling services.

Just two years earlier, Marcus had posed for a high school yearbook picture with his friend Malinda Hughes. The pair had been selected as “Most Soulful” of their senior class at Walker High School. In the picture, Marcus and Malinda are holding CD boxes and Marcus is wearing a pair of overalls and a flowery shirt beneath. But the most gripping part of the photograph is his terrific smile.

 

Marcus and Melinda Hughes

Across the years, this smile lit up a thousand faces. It was infectious. And even though the Mitchells didn’t have as much as some in terms of material blessings, Marcus always found reason to smile. He truly loved life.

As a kid, Marcus developed an early fascination for sports. He once played Toy Bowl football, but got hit and said, ‘This ain’t for me.’

“He told me quick, he didn’t like contact,” Johnny said. “I played it all, but that’s when you learn you can’t make your kids be like you.”

Marcus’s life soon began to narrow around the game of basketball. Johnny put up a hoop in the back yard and friends were over all the time, shooting baskets and getting up games. Marcus played for the Maddox Jets and later became a Walker Viking. He was skinny, had a flattop haircut, and wore number 11 on a very good team. Like his favorite player, Magic Johnson, Marcus was a tall point guard.

Johnny further describes his son as an obedient kid and a straight-A student. “He was a kid with a lot of energy, a big dreamer,” he says. “I didn’t even have to whoop him that much or make him go to Sunday school. He was always up and ready for church.”

Marla remembers getting picked on by her older brother, the inevitable dynamic of siblings. “Oh torture!” Marla describes with a laugh. “He tortured me. When I was older, I always wanted to go with him to hang out with his friends, but he would not let me hang out with him. I’d be like, ‘Mom, make him take me with him!’ And she’d be like, ‘No!’”

There was one exception. Marcus’s twelfth grade year, the rap group Public Enemy was playing a concert in Birmingham at the BJCC, and on this occasion Wanda allowed her to go. “My mother took myself, Marcus, Jeff McNealey, and Yvonne Morgan,” Marla said. “She dropped us off and she was so scared! I said, ‘We’ll be all right.’ And we had the best time at the rap concert.”

But mostly Marla doesn’t remember the torture, or getting picked on by her older brother. She remembers Marcus’s smile and his unique ability to make everybody laugh. “He was kind of like the jokester,” she said. “He would come back with a sleek comment, a sly remark that always made you laugh. When people talk about him, that’s all they’d talk about, his big smile.”

Marcus collected friends like others of that era collected baseball cards. Everyone seemed to want to be around him. Friends were always coming to the house to play video games or listen to music. His personality cut across lines of racial divide. He was just one of those guys who made everybody’s life a little bit brighter, and losing that sort of person took a tremendous toll on the Mitchell family.

After Marcus’s death, Johnny and Wanda split up. Johnny sought out counseling and poured his angst out from the therapist’s chair. “If it wasn’t for counseling, I don’t know where I’d be, because that lady let me cry on her,” he says. “Some people that really don’t go through the grieving process, a lot of these people don’t live long. By me going to counseling, that woman prepared me and strengthened me a little bit better how to handle death.”

Because of the severance of her parents, Marla was soon forced to choose between two households. And for a while, she lost her way. Though she had grown up in the church, sang in the choir and listened to her granny read the Bible to her, Marla says that after Marcus’s death, she began to question the reality of the Gospel. “I stopped going to church,” she said. “I couldn’t go. The last place I saw my brother was at the church altar. I couldn’t understand it. I was like, ‘If there’s a God, why did He let this happen?’”

Johnny took it equally as hard. “You don’t know if you’re going to make it through life,” he said. “I’m 40 years old and I’ve got to bury a child? I wasn’t ready for that. It turned my whole world upside down.”

Forced to deal with her brother’s death while still a teenager and lamenting the fact that she’d never see Marcus again or celebrate his college graduation, Marla began to go down the wrong paths. “My life was spiraling out of control,” she said.

 

“I had to have something to believe in…” – Marla Mitchell

Years of fluctuation went by, and Marla eventually decided to return to church after she had her first child. “I had to have something to believe in,” she said. “I knew how I’d been raised, to believe in God, to pray and ask for forgiveness, and ask for help in the things you need help with. I needed help getting through life. I knew that the only way I could get back on track was getting back into church and believing and praying and asking God to help me get back to where I needed to be for myself and for my family.”

Though neither Johnny nor Marla have completely healed, they have been able to negotiate the devastating event by honoring Marcus’s life and doing their best to pay forward what he gave to them. Johnny says he finds continual healing by helping others who come within his path to grieve the loss of a loved one. “God sends them to me,” he says. “People that have lost loved ones, they’ll find me some kind of way.”

Now Johnny and Marla are both longtime workers at the power company, where they spread the same infectious cheer as Marcus once did to the people around them. Marla works at the main office and greets customers who, like this writer, prefer to pay their bills in person. Working with the public isn’t easy, Marla says, as many come with complaints and other grievances. But being nice and smiling seems to make it a whole lot better. “It makes the situation better if you are a positive person,” she says.

Johnny helps his co-workers to remember how blessed they are. “Most everybody make more money than me, and I got a bigger smile than anybody!” he said. “I say to them, ‘How can you make this kind of money and not smile? You living in a better home and you can’t smile? I get a smile from making that statement. That’s what we need more of in this world, is smiles.”

It’s taken Marla and Johnny a long time to smile again, but they realized that there was no sense in letting the end of Marcus’s life mean the destruction of theirs; that the light of life is too precious not to beam so that others can see. “It was the saddest time in our life, and the Good Lord has seen us through it,” Johnny says.

Johnny K poses with a picture of his son. Photo by Al Blanton.

Marcus Mitchell left this earth on October 30, 1993. When he passed, that terrific smile went with him, but it lives on in the lives that knew him best. They pass that torch of positivity and light the dark inner caves of the grieving and desperate.

The world needs people, like Marcus Mitchell, whose mere presence makes us want to live better and more impactful lives. In a world where complaints and criticisms are legion, we desperately need laughter. The world needs more smilers, for life is too fleeting to be miserable all the time. And though his life was short, his death tragic, Marcus Mitchell chose to smile. Perhaps, because of this, he lived a fuller life than many who live longer but choose to live their lives in a sullen way.

In the end, it only took nineteen years for Marcus Mitchell’s life to teach us that a smile is a terrific thing.

So look around you. Enjoy your life. Count your blessings. Make someone’s day a little brighter.

Let’s be happy. 78

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