The south side of the square in downtown Grenada, Mississippi, with the Confederate monument. Feb. 2, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Author, Fredlyfish4 – Own work.
Watching the nation’s political figures react to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this week reminds me of the day I met King and the many messages of that day.
It happened in the summer of 1966, when I was just a year into a career as a reporter. I happened to be visiting relatives in North Mississippi and went to Grenada, Miss., where King, Stokely Carmichael and a host of civil rights heroes were marching together to register Black voters.
The atmosphere was highly charged, with White officials openly challenging the marchers who had joined the affray after James Meredith, the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, had been shot as he participated in the march.
It was the only time in my life when anyone discriminated against me because I am White. King ordered me and all of the White reporters out as we attempted to cover a speech he was about to make to a crowd of Black citizens aiming to register to vote.
A few of the national television networks had newsmen who were Black and they were allowed to stay.
Although we White folks were annoyed at the time, it was a lesson we were only beginning to learn.
King’s decision to toss us out was leading most of the nation’s newspapers and television networks to hire reporters of color. It no doubt changed the tone of much that came later.
It was one of many lessons learned in that volatile summer as civil rights protests broke out in the South.
Arrests were happening everywhere and sadly, many White citizens of Grenada and other towns where the protesters marched misbehaved in ways that were embarrassing to watch. I recall seeing several elected officials inside the Grenada courthouse spraying air freshener all around as though they could erase the presence of the marchers who wanted to vote.
Grenada, like many other towns in the South at the time was a segregation stronghold.
Few Black citizens even tried to register to vote. And even fewer actually cast ballots. Of 4,300 Blacks, only 135 were registered while 95 percent of White citizens were registered. Life in Grenada in 1966 was like life had been in 1886.
King was obviously worshiped by those Black marchers and a few Whites who joined the protest.
As I talked with him outside the courthouse, elderly women surrounded him, sometimes falling to their knees to kiss his hands or feet. It was just the beginning of a movement that would explode all over the South and lead to dramatic increases in Black voter registration. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Now, after years of improving race relations in this country, we are seeing an escalation of racist politics.
Former President Donald J. Trump is leading the charge. At a weekend rally in Arizona he stoked the flames twisting facts of our public health policies and telling his supporters that President Joe Biden’s administration is discriminating against White people to determine who lives and who dies.
“If you’re White you don’t get the vaccine, or if you’re White you don’t get therapeutics,’’ Trump said. “In New York State, if you’re White, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical health.’’
New York officials have strongly objected to the accusations, insisting that race is not being used to deny treatment.
Trump also used the rally to continue his claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. It is clear that the political candidates who get Trump’s endorsement have to tow his line.
It’s a shame we don’t have more public figures to counter the poison he is spreading.
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