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Apr 04 2012

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Where Were You on April 4, 1968?

Unbelievable that it was 44 years ago. We were on our way out to dinner at the S&S Cafeteria at Lenox Square in Atlanta. I heard it for the first time on the car radio. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot and killed today in Memphis.”

Now this was shocking news for all who cared about the civil rights movement, but Dr. King’s death was personal for me. His daughter, Yolanda, was in the 8th grade, a year behind me in school. I didn’t know her at the time, but she was a good friend of many of my black friends. Kids were in mourning that next day. Word spread like wildfire around the school, and people were speaking in a hush and tiptoeing past her class – as if she were there! only years later did I realize she would not have been in school that day, or for the next several days.

Yoki King later became a dear friend. She looked so much like her father, and had a booming, infectious laugh. The next year our lockers were next to each other. The year I was a junior, she supported me in my run for student body president, and some of the racist buffoons our neighbors were nearly apoplectic over the rather large group of “nigras” who came over to my house to make campaign posters after school. You have to understand that we were sticking our necks way out – even in 1970, that just wasn’t done. Still later, we were in a drama class together. Yoki went on to be a tireless activist for her father’s causes, and did some acting as well. As you may know, she died suddenly in 2007 at the age of 51.

The 60s were strange and terrible times for race relations, and yet at Grady High School, it was like we were under some kind of bubble. We weren’t completely insulated from racial issues, and there were unwritten rules that it didn’t occur to us to fight against, but for the most part, we all – as Rodney King said – “just got along.”

We got glimpses of racial realities outside of school. Just a few years earlier, I had made friends with another girl, and when school was out we had to write to each other to stay in touch over the summer. We couldn’t call each other or – horrors – go to each other’s homes. “It just isn’t done,” was the usual lame explanation. After the gathering to make campaign posters, my mother got dirty looks and whispers at the grocery store for weeks. But at school, it was like nobody noticed. We were unprepared for the true nature of race relations when we left Grady for the real world. When I talk about those times, my kids just shake their heads. They have no frame of reference for separate water fountains, or a black man stepping off the sidewalk to make way for a 5 year old white girl.

Last summer, I had the privilege of attending my 40th high school reunion.  Almost everyone I talked to remarked on that very thing – the rare and special environment we had at Grady that transcended the times and the busing, the segregation, the unwritten rules – and how we didn’t realize what we had until we got Out There and saw how things really were. And, best of all, I got to see that “other girl” who had been my secret best friend so long ago. We had stayed in touch all this time, but had not actually seen each other in about 30 years.

And so, I remember Dr. King and his daughter today, and ponder how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

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15 comments

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  1. Jeanette

    How different the times in the south compared to California. We had one black kid at our high school. He was the class president. It wasn’t until my family moved to Florida in 1985 that we ran into racial prejudices. My children and I couldn’t believe the change in attitude.
    Jeanette recently posted..Melbourne, Australia from The EdgeMy Profile

    1. SusanCritelli

      Wow. By the 1980s a lot of the stuff am talking about should already have been over with. But even now I have knee jerk responses to certain things that surprise and embarrass me. Conditioning dies hard. How would you say it is different in Australia?

  2. Denise Sonnenberg

    Seems you are blessed to have gotten to know Dr. King more through your friendship with his daughter. Definitely something to be thankful for.
    Denise Sonnenberg recently posted..9 Examples of Successful Use of Pinterest for MarketingMy Profile

    1. SusanCritelli

      Denise, you have no idea. I can’t begin to tell you how those years shaped me. Thanks for reading.
      SusanCritelli recently posted..A Lesson in ForgivenessMy Profile

  3. Gina Carr

    Thanks for sharing this special memory. Dr. King was such an incredible man. I am so grateful for him and others who have fought wrongs throughout history.

    I also grew up in Atlanta. I was only 7 when he died but I do remember it. It was a very scary time.

    One of the best ways to learn about what it was like for black people during that time is to read (or listen to) Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. It is a fabulous book about a white man who turned himself black and traveled the deep south. Life changing.

    1. SusanCritelli

      Gina you are so right! “Black Like Me” was a pivotal book in my understanding of race relations and really opened my eyes. As a member of a couple of oppressed people groups – Jews and Native Americans -but also one who had domestic help growing up, as well as an unfortunate, um, violent encounter with a black man during my twenties, I confess my present perspective is a real mixed bag. I am so grateful for the way things were at Grady, not sure what would have happened later had I had a different foundation.
      SusanCritelli recently posted..What College Graduates Don’t Know About AmericaMy Profile

  4. Karla Campos

    What an honor to personally have known the daughter of the great Dr. King, all I can say is wow! I am glad you caught up with old friends at the reunion, I bet you guys had great things to say about Yoki and one can hope she was there in spirit.
    Karla Campos recently posted..iPad 3rd Gen GiveawayMy Profile

    1. SusanCritelli

      We missed her, for sure, and talked about her more than once. The photos were taken at an event that was specifically for our class, held at a local tavern we all used to frequent, so she would not have been at that one anyway. The main part of the reunion was a multi-class reunion, including more than 20 years of classes all in one place, and we were nowhere near the oldest! It was pretty awesome, held in the Egyptian Ballroom of the Fabulous Fox Theatre.

  5. bob warren

    badass blog

    1. SusanCritelli

      Thanks, Bob!

  6. David

    Good to know that Dr. King was more than a poster on a wall during black history month, to so many more people with a different cultural background. Great post.

    1. SusanCritelli

      Thanks, David. Hard to realize that there wasn’t always even such a thing as Black History Month. It didn’t start until 1976.

  7. Élida

    thanks for sharing such great article. i appreciate the post. keep posting more.

  8. barry

    Unfortunately I was at grade 1 primary school !

  9. Dennis Coble

    April 4, 1968 ~ I was in 8th grade, living in midwest Kansas, without any awareness of Martin Luther King, Jr, who he was, or what he was about.

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