February is Black History Month. My columns this month will focus on the integration of Rome City Schools. There will be stories of some trailblazers who helped get that done; torchbearers who set the pace for a peaceful integration of Rome City Schools. A Central Primary School student and a Shorter College student will reveal what they experienced when they enrolled in historically white schools. Their focus was on learning and making new friends.

When I think of the integration of Rome City Schools, I envision parents who may well have been nervous about sending their children to a white school. Nevertheless, those parents wisely guided their children through those trying times. Those parents knew instinctively what to say to their children ... before sending them out the door for what became an adventure.

I have always thought the integration of schools was part of the civil rights movement. When I think about the civil rights movement, the first name that comes to mind is the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have long believed his family, and their love and encouragement, empowered him to do much of what he achieved.

Remembering a famous family

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family was a bedrock of love and support for him through those turbulent years of the civil rights movement. Dr. King may well have arrived home tired and discouraged many times. Nonetheless, his family was always there waiting for him, welcoming him home.

Dr. King is assassinated

In April 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis to lead a march in support of sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel.

Dr. King’s family, grief stricken though they were, leaned on each other. Precisely because they were a close-knit family, they were able to weather that storm — difficult though it certainly was.

When asked what she remembered about her father’s death, Dr. Bernice “Bunny” King, said, “... all I knew was, I wanted my daddy.” She was 5 years old when her father was assassinated.

James Earl Ray, a confirmed racist, confessed to assassinating Dr. King. Ray could not tolerate policies to integrate the schools. After shooting Dr. King, Ray immediately fled the country. On July 19, 1968, the FBI caught up with Ray in London and extradited him to the United States. Ray pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Another tragedy strikes the King family

A talented musician, Alberta Christine Williams King served as the organist and choir director at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She was Dr. King’s mother. On June 30, 1974, just over six years after Dr. King was assassinated, Alberta was shot and killed. That awful day, a crazed “nut bar” named Marcus Wayne Chenault, shot and killed Mrs. King while she played the organ at church.

Chenault, a 23-year-old black man from Ohio, adopted an extremist version of theology and said he shot Mrs. King because “all Christians are my enemies.” Chenault was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Although the sentence was upheld on appeal, he was later resentenced to life in prison. That was partially due to the King family’s opposition to the death penalty.

It was impossible to make sense of Mrs. King’s murder. Losing your mother to violence like that is unimaginable.

The King family, grief-stricken though they were, knew it was not necessary to say anything clever to each other. All they had to do — just as they had when Dr. King was assassinated — was hold on to each other, love each other, pray together, and be there for each other. Once again, that is precisely what they did.

The significance of family

Together the King family bore the burden of overwhelming heartache more than once. Their grief and despair was so painful there are no words to effectively describe it.

The students who integrated Rome City Schools probably cannot imagine having faced the experience without the love and reassurance of their family. Those families inspired and motivated the students.

The significance of family cannot ever be over-emphasized.

Native Roman Pam Walker is a paralegal, a writer, avid cyclist, history enthusiast and ardent reader of Southern fiction. She is the author of the new book, “People, Places, and Memories of Rome.” Readers may email her at pamterrellwalker@gmail.com.

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