YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES
I lived less than five miles from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. My birthplace will forever be known as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. For a long time, I was ashamed of the place I had called home. I remember the evening as if it was yesterday. It had been raining that day and it was cloudy and dreary outside. When they announced Dr. King's death, everyone on my street came outside and were wailing and crying and looking up toward heaven asking, "Why?" As a young girl, I will always remember that night in Memphis. I learned at a very early age that you can be killed even if you were doing good deeds. I learned at a young age that the color of my skin would impact my life. I grew up in a system of social deference — a system of segregation. All legitimatized through community approval, and all triggered by provincialism, poverty, caste gains and solidarity. Those times taught me to be proud of my heritage and who I was. I understand the struggle and the fight for civil rights, dignity and pride. Those experiences motivated me to get an education and work hard and I passed that legacy down to my daughters.
I was a member of the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. On a hazy afternoon in the fall of l979, many folks in the city of Greensboro, N.C., were at a football game as two friendly rivals played out a game on the field of NC A&T State University's stadium. A hail of shots were heard in the community of a housing project, but the fans didn't hear them. It was when they left the game and turned on their auto radios, or waited until they were home and turned on their TVs, that they heard the news. The Ku Klux Klan had invaded a housing project where some small groups were staging a juvenile-type "Death to the Klan" rally and engaged in a shoot-out with a barely armed group of Duke University students and the Socialist Party workers. When the smoke settled, five of the students and socialist workers were dead. Rev. William Finlator, then chair of the N.C. State Advisory Council, initiated a hearing through the commission. For days, the committee sat in the Guilford Courthouse with helicopters buzzing overhead; State Bureau of Investigation, FBI and local police observing movements; and members of the Neo Nazi Party, in brown shirts, goose-stepping and making a mockery out of the hearing. Eventually, the perpetrators were tried in court and found not guilty. Nine years passed and lawsuits, charges and countercharges were filed. The local police were said to not have responded to the KKK threat until it was too late. When the local NAACP, families of the deceased youth and workers, the Socialist Workers Party, religious leaders and other local citizens decided to "reaffirm their opposition to the intimidation and terror tactics of the Klan in rural communities in NC," they decided to stage a march for justice and to evidence their commitment to work for peace and justice. With five deaths having occurred the last time the Klan was challenged, some feared another bloody confrontation. By then I, a professor and administrator at N.C. A&T, had become state chair of the N.C. State Advisory Council, replacing Finlator. I chaired the march. The Greensboro police assured us that they would do all they could, and I took the front line in the march. Scores of buildings along the march route had windows that could accommodate snipers if they so chose and aimed guns on the marchers, especially the front line. Some 4,000 people came out to support the Peace and Justice Rally. I look back with deep thanksgiving that no incidents occurred, realizing the march could have been the day when the shoot-out was repeated and I was on the front line and most likely to have fallen if there had been firing.
In the ninth grade, the guidance counselor called all of the black students to gather in the auditorium. We were all advised to select the trade high school as our high school choice instead of the college prep high school, the business and secretarial science high school, or the math and science high school. No regard was given to our individual academic performance or aptitudes. We, the black students, had been bused into this school for grades 7-9. This was in Massachusetts in 1969. No one on the staff was black, only the students.
Because of good performance on aptitude tests, I was one of several black students who were in the top tracks for academics. But having to get to the bus stop an hour earlier than the white kids and standing on the street corner during rain, snow or sunshine was no fun. Was it worth it? Well, there was more exposure to the white world and culture; I do not recall any name-calling from the white kids or discriminatory behavior on the part of the teachers, only the guidance counselor, who only saw a future of trade vocational work for the collective.
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