By Suzy Barile
The evening after Coretta Scott King died, I discovered she and her husband were married on the day I was born. It struck me as odd that I, a trivia lover, had not known this, but it did remind me of the day I met her 10 years ago at a conference in Washington, D.C.
She was keynote speaker at a Women’s Action for New Direction (WAND) luncheon, and in a roomful of female activists, she addressed the difficulties facing women of all races and the importance of raising our children to be good leaders and respecters of others. Afterwards she posed for a photograph with conference attendees, and then for group shots – we North Carolinians gathered ’round proudly.
As a journalist, meeting famous people is part of the job. Go to an event, listen to a speech, ask a few questions, and write a story. Done. But something about that day stayed with me, though whether it was her quiet demeanor around her admirers, or the resolve with which she’d continued her husband’s work after his death, is unclear. Perhaps it was simply the difference in the color of our skin.
Attending Wake Technical Community College where I teach are students from all over the world -- Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Algiers, Mexico, Iran, Russia, Chile, Zaire – and what I learn about their countries and cultures is an education in itself. This interaction is worlds away from the one in which I was raised. The daughter of a U.S. Navy officer, I lived segregation. Though I don’t recall actually seeing restrooms and water fountains and schools and motels and lunch counters designated “colored,” these people of color worked for and served us.
Now, I did “know” black people: Mamie and Robert worked many years for my grandparents. She had large, rough hands made tough over years of helping others, but tender when she hugged my siblings and me. In a photograph taken of her a year or two before she died, she is seated in my great-uncle’s living room, surrounded by my smiling family. Notwithstanding that oneness, we still were different. The photo is of my family with Mamie.
We lived in Newport, R.I., while I was in elementary school. One cold day, two sisters died in a house fire. They were found in their bedroom closet, dressed in their Brownie Scout uniforms for a meeting that afternoon. Despite Newport being a small town, I did not know the little girls. Their Scout troop was the “colored” one.
By high school, a few black students were in my classes, for the late 1960s brought desegregation to Northern Virginia. My senior year, the Fairfax County school board assigned one of the first black principals to my predominantly white school -- as a test, we later learned. While there were problems at nearby Marshall High, so aptly portrayed in the film “Remember the Titans,” we got through the year at Madison High with no turmoil.
Next came junior college and classes with a young black woman. But she was “African,” we were told, not black. Two years later, on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus where I had transferred, the greater number of white-to-black students made it easy to remember those who excelled. For instance, Washington Post news editor Mae Israel was in my graduating class.
This trend of little-to-no exposure to minorities continued throughout much of my newspaper career, for newsrooms have never overflowed with diversity, unless you consider that, as a female reporter, I was a minority in 1975.
Not until motherhood, with my contribution to the “Y” Generation, did my world finally change. Considered the largest consumer group in our nation’s history, these babes born from the early-1980s to the mid-1990s made popular the term “Whatever,” demanded education be delivered in sound bites, and established multi-tasking as the norm. They seldom looked at color, merely taking differences for granted. As young adults, the members of this “Y” Generation are intermingling, intermarrying and integrating – celebrating their differences.
Following her husband’s assassination in 1968, King said she was more determined than ever that his dream be realized: “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers,” he proclaimed.
Why did that meeting with Coretta Scott King stay with me? Perhaps my experiences over the intervening years played a part, for in that “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” moment when I discovered I shared a special date with this couple, the affirmation of their dream was somehow realized in me.
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