Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day: no fireworks for me but vivid memories of the segregated South. In the middle of a warm May night in 1965, a Greyhound bus left me in a lightless, small Mississippi town. After the bus departed, three young African-Americans, who had been riding at the back of the bus, approached me and asked if I planned to walk two miles to the radar station. Thus began my second journey with three friends who would not be spending much time with me outside of the Air Force facility.
This arrival, one of many stories shared with my friend and colleague, Royal King, twenty years later, did not surprise him. He had been there four years earlier and he had grown up in a small Louisiana town. He knew about “For Whites Only” signs, he had seen the sundown towns and he lived the segregated South.
When Royal was sixteen and living in Southern California, he followed his uncle back into the South to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Many Freedom Rides began in New Orleans and went to Jackson, Mississippi, during the summer of 1961. These rides were inspired by events experienced by the first Freedom Riders on Mother’s Day, 1961.
In Birmingham, Alabama, stands a commemorative plaque recalling what happened on that day. “On Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, a group of black and white CORE youths on a ‘Freedom Ride’ from Washington D.C. to New Orleans arrived at the Birmingham Greyhound terminal. . . . Here they were met and attacked by a mob of Klansmen. The riders were severely assaulted while the police watched, yet the youth stood their ground.”
The point of the Freedom Rides was to test a court case, “Boynton v. Virginia” which declared segregation in bus terminals unconstitutional. The Mother’s Day attack on the riders not only did not deter more rides but also inspired youth throughout the country to get involved. Royal King knew the risks and went to Mississippi anyway.
Royal put a face on the Civil Rights movement for students and colleagues in our community. As a teacher and later as a substitute, he shared this part of history. He also lived the courage and integrity that he displayed as a teenager. He modeled this as psychological counselor in the Navy, as an elementary teacher for thirty-four years, as everyone’s favorite substitute teacher for eleven years and as a teacher’s union leader for his entire career.
Royal was tough and blunt, but he was gentle and caring. He spent many of his lunch hours reading stories to kindergartners. Yet, he always had time to stand up for his colleagues. All of these great qualities were embedded in that teenager who had the fortitude to be a Freedom Rider. I will honor him, along with many other anonymous Civil Rights fighters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.