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Dr. King is the reason

Seattle Times copy editor

Betty Anderson

I was in junior high school in Alamogordo, N.M. (pop. 25,000), when I saw demonstrations on TV by people who looked like me. Those who didn't look like me were police officers or firefighters. They turned high-powered water hoses on the people who looked like me. They let dogs tear at the dark-skinned people. "Black" was a bad word then. I had been called Black Betty and got a paddling from my principal in elementary school for fighting. When I was in the third grade I called a boy whose skin was darker than mine a "nigger," and my principal lit me up. He was white. He didn't believe it was a good idea for me to call people of my own race names like that, he said. Negro people have a hard time making it in this world and we should stick together, respect each other, he said.

So here I was, about four years older, watching Negro people demand equal rights to use the same restrooms as whites and drink from the same water fountains and eat in the same restaurants and work in the same offices. They were beaten and jailed for asking for such basic things that I already had in an integrated community in New Mexico. I didn't quite understand - until he was killed.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, I was a junior in high school. Some other students, who were military brats, suggested we all dress in black the next day at school to mourn his death. I went along with it. Thought it was a good idea to show some unity for once.

The teachers were upset that we did that, but they didn't kick us out of school. They made little remarks like "We don't have that kind of problem here, so why are you doing this?" My music teacher came all the way over to my side of town from the North End, where most of the whites lived, to express his sympathy about Dr. King's death and to say he was glad that we didn't have a problem with segregation in Alamogordo. That made me start thinking. Why? Why would he make such an effort to come over and say that? I started recalling some things that had happened in my short life that made me realize all was not well and that Dr. King had been a reminder of that to all types of people.

I remembered when this same music teacher succumbed to pressure by the white parents of our high school and canceled plays by the choir. It was after I was cast in a scene in "Oliver" as Charlotte Sowerberry, the free-wheeling undertaker's daughter. People didn't like the idea of a Negro girl being kissed by a white boy, who was my boyfriend in the play. I now can occasionally go to the theater and see scenes of interracial leading men and women. But we are far from total acceptance, as African-American actors will tell you.

I remembered my high-school history teacher, who nominated me for umpteen awards and recognition as his prized student. I even accepted one from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Never heard of them before they presented me with a jeweled flag pendant. That same history teacher said in class one day that he'd never allow his daughter to date a Negro boy. Parading me as an outstanding student for his white colleagues in school was somehow OK. The world could do without such hypocritical benevolence.

Dr. King was the reason in the early 1960s that my father stood guard by the door of the clean "whites only" bathroom in Texarkana, Texas, to keep a white gas-station attendant from trying to stop my mother from taking me in there because the "colored only" bathroom was filthy. I was about 10 years old then. I remembered how we were considered the halfway station to California for our relatives from Louisiana. They would stop at our house, eat and sleep, before resuming their trip. They couldn't stay in hotels or eat in restaurants along the way.

I remembered that my mom would always pack a big box of food when we went to Louisiana on vacation. We had to cross the breadth of Texas to get there. That was an 18-hour drive. They'd always plan the trip so we'd leave at the crack of dawn, get to the "safe" places, such as Dallas, during the day to gas up, and then continue on our way.

Now, after much blood and tears shed by the Kings, the Malcolm Xs, the Huey Newtons, the H. Rap Browns, we modern-day, semi-free African-American families just call up AAA and get a TripTik with our route all laid out and the names of any number of hotels in which we might want to stay. Or, better yet, we call a travel agent and fly. Many of us ride anywhere we want on Metro's bus system. Doesn't matter that the driver might not treat us with respect. He just needs to drive the bus where we need to go.

Dr. King is the reason I was hired 16 years ago by a newspaper right out of college because I could read, speak and write so that the white man could understand it. I guess my B average and all those awards helped. Dr. King opened up the predominantly white colleges for us. Many of his followers were injured or killed trying to integrate colleges.

Because I was able to get a degree in journalism, get my foot in the door of a newspaper after the black community complained there were no black reporters employed by that newspaper, and thereby gain some experience in newspapering, I'm sitting here at The Seattle Times editing stories by reporters, designing Business News sections and trying to keep the diversity of our community at the forefront of our coverage.

I can sit here typing into this computer terminal and recall the overt racism I experienced, but what Dr. King and others did was make me proud to be who and what I am. He made me strive to be the best that I can be as a journalist, as a mother, as a Christian.

He pulled racism out and placed its cancerous, odorous form before the world. This embarrassed our nation. This awakened and angered our people. They tried to comply with Dr. King's nonviolent philosophy, but when he was violently killed, nothing could hold us back. Some chose fire and guns as weapons. I chose education.

The struggle for equality that Dr. King began has taken a different turn. Racism is more subtle. We're further along than we were 30 years ago, but we haven't reached that place in all of our hearts where Dr. King wanted us to be: to be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. It's harder to identify your opponent when there are no German shepherd attack dogs chewing on your leg.

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