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MLK's influence breaks apathy of a 16-year-old

I was 16 years old on the first weekend in April 1968. I'll save you the math: I'm 56. I paid attention to basketball and 16-year-old girls - in that order - and little else. I was apolitical. I knew that we were fighting in Vietnam because my brother-in-law had spent a year there, and I knew that a lot of black folks were convinced that the token integration that was being reluctantly accepted across the South wasn't enough.

Beyond that, I paid no attention to the news and the only part of the paper I read was the sports.

I think I had heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis before our school's principal, Homer Sharp, announced it over the intercom on Friday morning, but I am not sure. I know that I remember hearing the announcement and thought it strange that he would interrupt the day with that news - as if he expected us to be grieved.

I don't mean any disrespect by that remark. I just mean that most of my friends were as apathetic as I was about current events - even the historic, life-altering events of the tumultuous 1960s.

You see, the rest of the nation may have been in turmoil, but the Newton County where I lived hadn't paid that much attention yet. We knew about the hippies, of course, and would drive up to Atlanta and cruise the four-block strip between 10th and 14th Streets and make fun of them. I bought a copy of the "Great Speckled Bird" once, but discarded it before I got home. My mama wouldn't put up with that sort of trash.

We knew about the civil rights marches, of course, and LBJ was extremely unpopular in most local circles because of his stance on those issues. And we realized that our school was integrated - or at least we thought it was - because there were about three dozen former R.L. Cousins pupils scattered among our student body.

Honesty compels me to admit that it would be a long time before I knew how brave and heroic Sandra Hollingsworth, Gay Hurst, Leroy Goodman and those other pioneers really were. I knew right away how smart they were, because they did a lot better than I did on every assignment.

But basically, I was pretty ignorant of the affairs of the world on the first weekend in April 1968. I would soon have my eyes opened.

Early Saturday morning, I got a phone call from my friend, Lee Piper. Lee's daddy owned the local hardware store, and Lee would go on to kick footballs toward goal posts for Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide, but on this day he wanted me to get on an airplane and fly with him to Washington, D.C.

It seems that our high school band was in Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and would be riding home on the train that day. Our band director, Mr. Basil Rigney, in an apparent moment of great weakness, had told Lee that if we got to the train station, we could ride home with the band. This interested us greatly because our girlfriends were in the band and it was about a 14-hour train ride.

Sixteen-year-old kids can have a lot of fun on a 14-hour train ride.

Lee's dad said he could go if I went with him. He was paying. My mama was at work and my daddy was asleep after working all night at the mill. I took a $10 bill out of my daddy's wallet, left a note that said I was going to Washington to meet the band, and we headed to the airport.

I have a 16-year-old of my own now. I would kill her if she did that.

Once we were airborne, we learned that the Washington airport was closed because of rioting in the streets. We were diverted to Greenville, S.C. Lee checked the train schedule and learned that the band's train would be coming through Greenville that night. We took a cab to the station and prepared to wait - but we just couldn't. We had to get out and walk around town.

To make a long story very short, we wandered into the wrong part of town after sundown and encountered an angry mob of young black men. We were very, very lucky to escape with our lives. When we finally arrived at the Atlanta train station, there were, to my amazement, armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Atlanta with German shepherds on leashes and machine guns in their arms.

Now here's the point. After my close encounters with the rage, anger and heartache of such a large segment of the population, I began to pay attention. I wanted to know why there was so much hate, anger and outrage. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. would have a long-reaching impact on my life in ways that I didn't realize at the time.

And now here we are, 40 years hence, still asking some of the same questions he dared to ask.

Have we become a nation in which a person can be judged "not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character?"

I fear that the answer, my friend, is still blowing in the wind. The answer is still blowing in the wind.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.