CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1968 Dunbar Middle School was Dunbar High School with a student body that was 83 percent white and 17 percent black. I say black rather than African-American because that is how I was educated in the 1960s by my friend. Once, after I referred to the black kid as the colored kids, she said, "We are not purple or blue or any other color, we are black." That was the beginning of a remarkable education.
Forty-five years ago, I was a sophomore at DHS on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Regular newscasts had covered Dr. King's presence in Memphis for the garbage workers strike, but that evening a special report interrupted regular Friday night programming to announce that he had been shot while standing on the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Hotel.
Dr. King died immediately, and instantly the country was seized by shock, grief, anger and rage that spurred fiery riots in every major city in America. Before the night was over, property damage was immeasurable and more than 40 people were dead.
We watched the raging riots on television, but cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. seemed far, far away from our small town tucked away in West Virginia. Although there was racial tension in the Kanawha Valley, it was obviously not on the scale experienced in major population areas.
President Johnson declared Monday, April 7, as a national day of mourning. Some libraries, schools, museums and businesses closed.
Monday morning came and all of us white kids went off to school, but the black kids, who were bused in from Institute, did not. There was a noticeable difference in the hallways of Dunbar High School that day, and we all wondered what was to come. The next day all the black kids came back. All of them were wearing black armbands and all of them had excuse notes that read the same: "Please excuse (insert student's name) from school yesterday; there was a death in the family." As soon as they turned in their excuse notes, they were sent to the principal's office. The principal made demands under the threat of suspension; remove the armbands and change the excuse notes. When the black kids refused to comply, a week of negotiations began.
The next day, the parents began to arrive. We watched in curious silence as fathers dressed in suits, long overcoats and fedoras came with mothers dressed in hats, gloves, matching shoes and purses accenting their beautiful dresses and jackets. As we stood outside waiting for the bell to ring, we whispered to our black friends, asking which parents were whose. When the bell rang, they patiently waited for the students to get to their classes before they entered the building. I lagged behind to watch as the fathers removed their hats and draped their coats over their arms. The second bell rang, and I risked a tardy slip to watch their dignified silhouettes walk down the hall toward the principal's office.
Their decisions became more complicated when they were told that students would not be allowed to make up exams scheduled for the week. A failing test grade would bring down their GPA which in turn would negatively affect their college entrance possibilities. I asked my friend what her parents had told her to do. She said they were leaving the decision up to her because she would have to deal with racism for the rest of her life and they wouldn't always be there to guide her.