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.”
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.