Wednesday, August 9, 2017


The Dream Lives On

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…

- from Sonnet XLIII in Sonnets from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

“Put down that brick.  It’s my doorstop!”
A young man stood in the entrance to my classroom, breathing heavily, and holding a brick over his head as if to hurl it at one of my students.  I spoke as firmly as possible, focusing every ounce of my attention on willing him to calm down.  It worked.  He froze with his arm still in the air, looked at me in astonishment,  then put the brick back by the door.  Everyone in the room let out an audible sigh of relief.
I walked over and gently placed my hand on his arm, now hanging limply by his side.  In as soothing a voice as I could muster, I asked him to tell me his name and what the problem was.  Rivers told me he was only defending his younger brother.  Apparently, one of my students had been harassing the boy out in the hall before class and Rivers had seen it and become angry.  Flinging a brick at the trouble-maker was the way he intended way to ensure this would never happen again.
I asked him if he would be willing to come back after school so we could sit down and work out a better way to handle problems.  He said he would.  All day long, both students and teachers kept telling me I’d made a big mistake, that it wasn’t safe for me to be alone with Rivers, that I should arrange for one of the coaches to be there as well to protect me.  I ignored them, confident that I could handle the situation.  Where others saw him as a violent man, I saw him as a troubled teenager in need of help, and I was going to do my best to provide that help.  I’d  been teaching for only 3 weeks, but already I’d seen time and again how willing my students were to respond to me.  I trusted that Rivers would be no different.
When the last bell finally rang, I waited patiently.  I didn’t know whether or not he would show up, but I hoped with all my heart that he would.  When he arrived a few minutes later, I gestured for him to have a seat.  Then I took the seat next to him, aware that by doing so, I was subtly suggesting that I was a friend rather than an authority figure.  For a long moment, he looked at me without saying a word, waiting for me to begin.  Then I reached across the aisle and, taking his two hands in mine, said, “Talk to me, Rivers.”
After staring down at my hands for a long moment, he said, “I know I have a terrible temper.  I just can’t help it.”
I asked him if he wanted to change, to learn to control his outbursts, and he silently nodded.  I’d never been trained in anger management, but I had raised four children and knew a little bit about helping teenagers to get along with others. We talked about techniques like withdrawing from a situation if he felt his temper heating up.  And I told him he could always come and sit in the back of my class-room as a refuge if he needed time to calm down.
By the end of our conversation, he and I had begun what would become a special relationship.  When I had him in class later that year, he had developed some self-control and was a model student, sometimes even reprimanding other students who got out of line.  He worked hard and accomplished everything I assigned.  He still had his difficult moments, but not when he was in my classroom.  
Something else happened that day.  For the first time, I had proven to myself that I had lost all fear.  Leon and I used to talk about the dangers of the situation into which we had moved our family, saying that although we recognized the risks, we weren’t afraid.  But it was one thing to say the words and something else entirely to face the potential for violence.  When I saw Rivers standing in the doorway, ready to attack, it didn't occur to me to call for help.  I was in charge of my classroom, responsible for the safety of my students, and I knew I had to protect them, just as I would have done with my own children if someone threatened them. 
             My school day settled into a routine.  Discipline was never a problem, for the students could tell I respected them.  They, in turn, treated me with respect.  They showed up for class ready to work and I challenged them to work hard.  While most of them couldn’t read or write at what would be considered an acceptable level, they could talk and listen.  As a result, we spent much of our time in conversation, exploring new ideas, and developing an appreciation for literature, even though they could not yet read all that well.
Much had changed since my arrival in Mississippi, when the feelings of desperation I’d felt over the summer in Cape Cod returned to haunt me for hours on end.  Our trailers didn’t arrived until almost a month after we did, and while we were waiting, we’d moved into a motel in Cleveland, 8 miles south of Mound Bayou.  Each morning, Leon drove the children to school and then spent the day preparing his clinic’s temporary quarters in a 5-room church parsonage, leaving me to pass the day by myself. 

I’d stare out the window,  as I had done in Cape Cod, and wonder what would become of me.  At least over the summer I could look out at the beautiful New England countryside.  Now all I could see was a wasteland.  Although not nearly as run-down as Mound Bayou, Cleveland was hardly a garden spot.
The Pollyanna in me was mostly successful at keeping those lonely thoughts to a minimum.  I took my meals in a small restaurant in the motel and became acquainted with the manager.  There were many days when his was the only voice I heard for 10 hours at a stretch.  And I actually looked forward to my one household chore. 
Since I couldn’t cook, I didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping and cooking.  All that was left for me to do was laundry.  Twice a week I gathered up our dirty clothes and took them to the Laundromat in Mound Bayou.  It would have been easier to do this in Cleveland, but I believed it was important to make the extra effort.  Not only was I making the political statement of supporting the Mound Bayou economy, I was also demonstrating to our new friends and neighbors that we were comfortable using a washer and drier  used by black people, something the white residents of Cleveland refused to do.  I wanted to show our community that I was very much a part of their town, of our town.
I was trying to do everything I could to erase the early opinion that had been formed about me when I thoughtlessly used the “Whites Only” bathroom during my first trip to Mississippi several months earlier.  Soon after I started teaching, my students were willing to accept me, but the adults took longer, hesitant to trust this interloper from the north.  It wasn’t until the local elections took place in November that I made real headway.
As voting booths appeared in the high school, I talked with my students about the importance of voting.  Two years earlier, civil rights workers had spent many hours ensuring that as many people as possible were registered.  But this didn’t guarantee that residents would participate when election time came around.  Not only did they find it hard to believe their votes could make a difference, they were also afraid of the KKK, afraid that they’d be shot if they dared to vote.
At first, my students were apathetic, viewing this as their parents’ issue, not theirs.  So I asked them if they cared about the Civil Rights Movement.  When they all said “Of course,” I reminded them that lives had been lost in the effort to ensure that black people could vote.  By degrees, I persuaded them to talk to their parents about coming out on Election Day.  And they did so, pleading with the adults to participate in much the same way today’s schoolchildren beg their parents not to smoke.
Although realized I was encouraging my students’ families to put themselves in danger’s way, I was convinced it was the right thing to do.  Nevertheless, was a relief when the community pulled together to protect themselves.  Armed volunteers escorted voters from the surrounding communities to the voting booths.  Typically, one man drove while another held a rifle out the window, and the voters rode in the back seat.  One of our friends boasted that he was such a good shot, he didn’t need somebody riding shotgun.  Instead, he’d drive with his own gun out the window, freeing up a seat for an extra passenger.
My students and I watched from the windows of our classroom as the voters walked from the cars into the building, surrounded by the men with shotguns providing protection.  I’ll never know how many of them would have voted without my classroom discussions, but it pleased me to think I might have made a  contribution.  I was even more excited the next morning when I learned that a black man had been elected county supervisor for the district encompassing Mound Bayou and several nearby towns.  This was an important position, for it influenced where and when garbage would be picked up and which streets would be repaired.  No longer would the black neighborhoods receive inadequate city services.  Word of this triumph exploded throughout Mound Bayou, and many of the townspeople thanked me for inspiring the students to persuade their parents to vote.  I was finally forgiven for having used the Whites-Only bathroom on my first trip to Mississippi.
With that absolution, I began to feel a new sense of confidence.  Prior to this, I’d felt insecure, seeing myself as unworthy of Leon’s attention.  Plagued by the belief planted by my parents that I was unattractive, I constantly feared that my husband would leave me for another woman, for one who was taller, or blonde, or had bigger breasts.  He was the love of my life, but despite his reassurances that he felt the same about me, I could never believe him.  I tried to compensate by being as interesting and competent as I could, hoping this would make up for my physical shortcomings.  I was an appendage, first to my father and then to my husband, and not an independent woman worthy of Leon’s respect.

Now, for the first time in our married life, I felt as if I’d finally earned his respect.  No longer was I only my father’s daughter, my husband’s wife, or my children’s mother, I was my own woman, capable of  rendering a service to an important cause.  I might have come to Mississippi reluctantly, but once I began teaching in Mound Bayou, I was as driven to succeed in the classroom as Leon was with his clinic.  His passion had become my passion and we were equal partners in our quest.
Slowly but surely, we were accepted into the Mound Bayou community.  My achievements in the classroom, Leon’s work at the clinic, and the manner in which Philip, Charles, and Jo related to the town children all had an impact.  People began to view us as friends, and we were no longer dependent only on ourselves for entertainment.  We were invited to various gatherings, to church, even to private homes.  The postmaster and his wife became our bridge companions and we loved joining them for an evening of cards. 

The more we were accepted, the busier we grew.  Weekends, especially, were a treat.  Blacks came to Mound Bayou from miles around to enjoy the freedom of spending a night on the town without fear of being harassed by the KKK.  One Saturday night, the local Elks Club hosted a dance and Leon and I decided to go.  It had been a long time since we’d been out dancing, and we never left the dance floor, sometimes dancing with each other, sometimes with friends.
The following morning, we got up early to go to a church.  As a Jew, I’d never attended church before, except for a wedding or funeral.  In Mound Bayou, however, church was such a major event that occasionally we would join our friends there.  On this particular day, I’d been asked to speak to the congregation.  When the minister introduced me, he said, “There is so much love in the Krugers’ home that even the cat never leaves the yard.”  Yes, we truly had been accepted into the community.
I spoke about the hippie movement and the ever-widening gap between teenagers and adults.  I suggested that as parents and teachers it was our job not to criticize our youths for their independent thoughts, but to encourage them on their path toward adulthood.  I told them how impressed I was with the students in my classes, and how much I enjoyed working with them.  I closed by thanking them for having enough faith in me to trust me with their children.
Almost every Sunday after church, there were potluck socials, with all the women bringing their favorite dish.  Unfortunately, food was not that plentiful for my students the rest of the week.  One day when we were waiting for the last bell in school, I overheard a girl say to a friend, “I can hardly wait to get home – we’re going to have meat for the first time in months!”  When her friend asked, “What kind of meat?” she said, “Salt pork in the collards.” I pictured the tiny piece of pork fat I always removed and threw away from a can of beans.  This was the exciting meat that would be added to her dinner, barely enough to flavor the greens.
In addition to lacking adequate food, many of my students owned only one set of clothes, and often that didn’t include shoes.  In good weather, they would come to school barefoot.  In winter, they’d cover their feet with rags held on by rubber bands.  One young man stopped coming to school because the one pair of pants he owned was too small for him.  I drove out to his shack,  and we had a long talk. I reminded him that who he was and what he made of himself were far more important than what he wore.  Apparently, I was able to make him feel better about himself, since he returned to school the next day.
I woke up one morning a few weeks later to discover several inches of snow on the ground, unusual in Mound Bayou.  I was anguished as I thought of my students trudging through the snow with rags on their feet.  How were they going to manage?  I pictured them shivering in their unheated shacks with the wind blowing through cracks in the walls.  At least when they arrived at school they’d be protected from the weather.
Charles and Jo were too excited to notice I was upset.  Snow!  They grabbed their winter coats and ran outside to play, eager to build a snowman and have a snowball fight, as they’d done when we lived in Boston.  They roamed the neighborhood, looking for friends, but the streets were deserted.  No one else was out playing in the snow because no one else had winter jackets and gloves to keep them warm.  It didn’t take the children long to figure it out and their excitement melted away.  They came home asking when the weather would turn warm again, worried about how their friends would survive the unusual cold spell.
How our lives had changed in just a few short months!  My children were developing a strong sense of empathy for those less fortunate, something that might never have happened had we remained in our comfortable lifestyle back in Boston.  When I’d first resolved to follow Leon to Mississippi, I saw it as the lesser of two evils:  uproot my children and myself  for transplantation in a dreary and hazardous setting, or watch my husband go without us, perhaps never to see him again.
Now, I saw our move as the adventure Leon had envisioned from the beginning.  Our children were learning incredible life lessons.  My work at the high school inspired me in a way I never could have imagined.  And I was proud of Leon’s efforts at the clinic.  Our accomplishments gradually erased my qualms, especially since the dangers I feared never seemed to materialize.  I learned later that Leon saw them first-hand when he provided medical care for people who had been beaten up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He kept those incidents to himself so as not to frighten the children and me.
Philip, who by this time was almost fourteen, would have been unafraid even if he’d known about any violence.  Like teenagers everywhere, he viewed himself as invincible, never believing anything bad could happen to him, and he firmly believed he could handle whatever came his way.  Much as I wanted to protect him and insist that he take no risks, I felt as if I’d given up my parental right to restrict his activities.  Since Leon and I had planted our family in a political hotbed, how could we expect him to ignore the injustices we constantly saw around us?  Moreover, although we were afraid for his safety, we were proud of him for taking a stand and getting involved.
Not all of the adults in town shared our attitude, hesitant to have the teenagers make waves for fear of retaliation from the white communities in nearby towns.  Some were even upset when I encouraged students to think of themselves as Black instead of Negro.  Shaken out of my naivet√©, I learned a lot about politics that year.  I learned that one bigwig in town had been given land to plant food for his family in exchange for keeping others in the town quiescent.  People feared that if they rocked the boat, they’d lose their jobs and their families would starve.  Even though the town was owned and run by Blacks, the white power structure was in control in many ways.
Philip and his friends, undeterred by the concerns of the older generation, decided to integrate the lunch counter at the bus depot in Shelby, following in the footsteps of  civil rights workers before them.  They were met at the door by a man blocking their path, saying they weren’t welcome.  Philip, already the budding lawyer, argued that since the bus depot serviced interstate traffic, the restaurant was bound by federal law and therefore could not discriminate against black people.  Wanting to avoid any hassles, the manager allowed them in, but then quoted prices ten times higher than usual.  Realizing they didn’t have enough money to pay, Philip and his friends decided to try a different restaurant, where they were able to achieve their goal.
Philip began to get a reputation as a troublemaker in Shelby.  One time, when he and his friends were walking in town, a white police officer stopped them and told Philip to get in the police car.  We’d been warned when we first moved to Mississippi that many of the police were KKK members and that under no circumstances should we let ourselves be picked up.  Philip, remembering this advice, was fearful that if he got into the car, he’d be taken to some alley and beaten up.  His friends, equally afraid for him,   surrounded Philip, creating a barrier between him and the officer.  By the time the policeman worked his way through the group, one of the boys had extricated Philip and was already driving him back to Mound Bayou. 
Philip wasn’t the only one to experience racism in the nearby towns.  One time, Jo had gone with a friend’s family to the grocery store in Cleveland.  She and her friend were hanging out at the front of the store, sitting on toy horses while the mother shopped.  
A white woman took Jo aside and said, “Do your parents know you’re playing with a black boy?”  When Jo assured her they did and that neither of them saw anything wrong with that, the woman asked where Jo lived.  
When Jo told her, the woman said, “I’ve heard about you folks.  You better clear out of here before my husband comes by.  You have no business living there and you’re going to be in trouble.”  
At that moment, Jo’s friend’s mother finished her shopping and the three of them left the store, thus avoiding a nasty confrontation with the woman’s husband.
It was clear to Leon and me that the children were receiving worthwhile life lessons from our experience in Mississippi.  Despite that, we were concerned that their formal education was not what it should be.  Long before home schooling became an accepted alternative to public schools, we decided to supplement the children’s schooling with additional work at home.  Leon tutored them in math, and I conducted play readings.
Philip and Charles never took to the math lessons, but Jo loved the challenge and looked forward to her sessions with Leon.  When it became apparent that Jo was a gifted mathematician, Leon called the Harvard University bookstore to ask for advice regarding more advanced math books.  They recommended a programmed text for algebra, designed for students to teach themselves.  It was a relatively new approach in which concepts were broken down into small, manageable steps.  After each concept was presented, the student responded to a series of questions and could check the answers for immediate feedback.  Based on how well the student did, he or she would be directed to move on to the next concept or go back for additional review.  Soon Jo was tackling mathematical concepts far beyond what she would have studied back in Newton.
Although Jo was the only one of the children to love the home math lessons, the whole family enjoyed reading plays aloud.  The first play I introduced was Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice.  Leon and I read the smaller parts and let the children perform the leading roles.  We paused frequently to discuss the meaning of the lines and spent an hour or more this way every evening.  When we weren’t reading together out loud, we’d sit in the living room, each of us reading a book or play.
With no television, radio, or newspapers, we had to find other ways to entertain ourselves, frequently turning to music.  We still had our record player and loved listening to a full range of music, from classical to rock, with show tunes a special favorite, but we had even more fun creating our own.  Everyone in the family played an instrument, and we’d spend hours practicing various pieces.  Leon’s sister, Helen, scoured the music stores in Boston and New York to find arrangements for piano, oboe, clarinet and flute and kept us supplied with enough music for years.  Charles played the piano, Philip the oboe, Jo the flute, and Leon the clarinet.  I sat with my knitting, an audience of one.  One time a neighbor told us he thought he was listening to the sound of records emanating from our house and was surprised to learn we were playing the music ourselves.
About once a month we were able to get away to go to Memphis and see a play or movie, or go to the zoo, or just shop.  Whatever else we did, we always stopped at our favorite bookstore.  I delighted in helping the children select books, remembering how much I treasured my weekly trips to the library when I was a child.
We typically ended our day with dinner out before heading home to Mound Bayou.  One time, we  read that a new restaurant was opening that would be serving fresh Maine lobster, a treat previously unavailable in Memphis.  We went to their grand opening and as we walked in the door, we saw a lobster tank with about a dozen lobsters crawling around.  We stood watching for a while, laughing as we saw the lobsters piling on top of one another.
When it was time to order, Leon and I requested the boiled live lobsters.  The waiter turned pale.  When we asked him what was wrong, he said he’d have to pull the lobsters from the tank and bring them back to the kitchen and he was terrified they would slice his hand with their claws.  Before we could assure him that the claws were corked and not a danger, he left to get a pair of tongs, which he then tried to use to pick up a lobster.  After several attempts, he trapped a lobster in the tongs and carefully placed it on a tray.  The lobster promptly crawled off the side of the tray and began to sidle across the floor with the waiter chasing after it.
Diners throughout the restaurant were panic-stricken.  Unaccustomed to seeing a lobster crawling around, people were standing on their chairs to avoid being pinched, some actually screaming in fear of the lobster.  Leon calmly put down his napkin, went after the lobster on his hands and knees, and followed it under a table.  A moment later he reappeared holding the lobster in his hand and everyone applauded.  When he tried to give it to the waiter, the poor fellow begged him to bring it directly to the kitchen, which Leon of course did.  Then he went back to the tank, pulled out a second lobster, and brought it to the kitchen as well, with our waiter trailing behind.
As funny as this episode was, it couldn’t compare to the sight of Leon imitating the seals at the Memphis zoo.  He would hold his hands as if they were flippers, flapping them together and barking.  He was such a good mimic that the seals barked back.  It was wonderful to see Leon clowning around like his old self, making everybody laugh.  I missed the carefree boy I’d known in high school, for life had become  a lot more serious with our move to Mississippi.
Despite that, however, living in Mound Bayou was satisfying and I loved every minute of every school day.  Because my students had grown to trust me, I was able to encourage them to explore new ideas, to be open to what was happening across the country as the Civil Rights Movement gathered more steam.  I introduced them to the slogan “Black is Beautiful” and worked constantly on improving their self-image.
One day, after my students began to internalize the concept and share in the “Black Pride” sweeping the nation, I decided to challenge them.  When they walked into my classroom, they saw on the chalkboard, in bold letters, the statement “Black is Not Beautiful.”  Although they protested, they knew I must have a lesson in mind and were curious as to what it might be.
We talked about the color black, and how it had come to symbolize unpleasant aspects of life in many cultures throughout the world.  In the early days of humankind, people were afraid of the night, fearful of the cold and dark that came with the setting sun.  This fear, still present in Biblical days, was reflected in the writings of the Bible.  When I asked for examples, the students described how God cast a plague of darkness on the Egyptians when they refused to free the Hebrews, and how the apostle Peter wrote of people being cast down to Hell, into the chains of darkness.  As they discussed these images, my students saw how it wasn't surprising that the color black evoked feelings of melancholy and despair, of alienation and evil.  We contrasted this with the color white, which is viewed in western cultures as symbolic of virtue and purity, of truth and spirituality.

My students were saddened by the realization that a fear of blackness was so deeply embedded in our subconscious, yet they still objected to the statement I’d written on the board, complaining, “Mrs. Kruger, all that stuff has nothing to do with us, with who we are.  We are beautiful.”  Yes!  I had reached them.  They were beginning to believe that their beauty, or lack of it, was tied not to the color of their skin, but to whom they were inside.  For the next few days, they wrote about being black.  I was deeply moved as I read their work.  Some wrote true stories, others created fictional ones, and some even composed poems.  All of them wrote from the heart.
The more involved I became with my students, the more I recognized that they had changed my outlook on life every bit as much as I had changed theirs.  This realization was driven home when my older daughter and I began to plan her wedding. 

           Although only 19 years old, Connie had fallen in love with a young man at school and decided to marry.  When I expressed my concerns about how young she was, my daughter was quick to point out that I’d been even younger when Leon and I made the same decision.  So I put my worries behind me and started to consider the logistics of planning a wedding from 1500 miles away.
It quickly became obvious to me that coordinating everything long distance was not going to be easy, and I was grateful when Leon’s sister Helen offered to take over the planning.  At first, we told her we’d be happy with whatever she did, but when she wrote asking what type of flowers we would like dyed to go with the blue and yellow color scheme of the wedding, Leon and I were appalled.  How could we even think about spending money on such trivialities when we saw the horrible poverty all around us?  Having observed first-hand the terrible living conditions of the people of Mound Bayou, we were troubled by the way we’d previously spent money, taking our good fortune for granted.  Hearing about poverty was one thing; living with it was quite another.  We found ourselves choosing to forego even the little extravagances, such as writing letters on expensive stationery and sealing the envelopes with wax.  It would be 20 years before I could bring myself to buy beautiful stationery again.
At the same time that we were simplifying our way of life, I was doing all I could  to enrich the lives of my students.  One evening, as  we sat at the dining room table brainstorming about what more we could do, Leon and I came up with the idea of taking my students on a field trip to Memphis to see the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  Released just prior to the holidays, it had been banned in Mississippi because it presented inter-racial marriage in a positive light.  Not only would the students have a wonderful time, we could also discuss the content of the movie, along with the political ramifications of having to go all the way to Memphis to see it.
The field trip was a success, and I continued to look for other ways to benefit my students' lives.  I adopted the statement “Broaden your horizons, widen your world,” from travel agency commercials and like my mother before me, looked to great literature as the springboard to accomplish this.  I introduced my students to poetry, recognizing in it a means of absorbing literature in small doses.  They enjoyed learning about rhythms and rhymes and created poems of their own.  On Valentine’s Day, I told my students I had something special to share with them.  Then I opened a book and read aloud Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.  I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach. . . .”  As I read these words, a hush fell over the room.  I looked out over my students and felt a rewarding sense of fulfillment.
My students and I had developed a rapport that went beyond anything I could have imagined.  Leon and the children were happy, as well.  But while life was good in the Kruger household, the rest of the country was in turmoil.  It was an exhilarating, energizing time in our nation’s history as the anti-war movement reached its peak.  Simultaneously, the civil rights movement gained national attention, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. acquired recognition as its uncontested leader.
            Although somewhat insulated from the rest of the country, we followed avidly all the news of Dr. King’s efforts, hoping that some day they would lead to better lives for the people of Mound Bayou.  Our excitement grew in February of 1968, when Dr. King’s work brought him within a 100 miles of us; he was meeting with striking black sanitation workers in Memphis.
            With no television or daily newspaper, we relied on the “Black Western Union” for our news.  This tightly connected network, functioning unofficially through black churches, provided a safe means of  communication, disseminating news quickly and efficiently throughout our community and others.  The whole town buzzed with enthusiasm as we learned that Dr. King planned to visit Mound Bayou when he finished his work in Memphis.  Some of our leading citizens had invited him and he had accepted.  Our town fathers planned a major celebration, expecting a couple of thousand people to come from the neighboring cotton fields to meet the great hero.  While we waited for his arrival, however, tragedy struck.          
           It was late on a quiet Sunday afternoon in early April.  Leon was working at the clinic, Jo was studying in her room, and Charles was practicing the piano.  I rested on my bed reading a book, with our dog and cat curled at my feet.  Philip was playing pinball down the street in Mr. Crowe’s restaurant.  He later told me he looked up from his game when he sensed someone near.  A woman had come in from the back room and stood next to him.  “You shouldn’t be playing pinball, son.  Dr. King’s been shot.  He’s dead.  You go on home now.” 
             Philip heard her words, but didn’t initially understand their significance.  Instead of heading for home, he walked to the pool hall, searching for friends.  Finding none, he turned toward our trailers.  As he was walking home, the horror and sadness of the woman’s words finally hit him, and he raced to tell us the terrible news.

            Still intent on my reading, I heard the front door slam; Philip dashed into my room, pale and breathless.  “Martin Luther King’s been assassinated!”
           I burst into tears.
          Hearing the commotion, Charles and Jo came running and didn’t understand why I was weeping.  While they tried to calm me, Philip told them what had happened and the four of us sat together,  hugging each other, bewildered.  I was finally able to ask Philip for details, but he knew only that the news had come over the radio at Mr. Crowe’s.
            A few minutes later, we heard someone knock at the front door.  Philip opened it to reveal a tall, imposing black man.  He leaned through the door, reaching forward to shake my hand.  “Good evening Mrs. Kruger, I’m a friend of your husband’s.  Would you mind if I come in?  I’d really enjoy a cup of coffee.”
            I motioned for him to come in and said, “Please make yourself comfortable.”  Then I went to the kitchen, still crying, to start a pot of coffee.  From there, I heard him speak quietly with the children and I looked into the dining room to see him take a chair and place it by the front door.  He sat down as I brought him the coffee, being sure to position himself so that anyone looking in from the street would see him.  As he and I talked, I realized he’d come to protect us.
           We later learned of the terrible backlash of Blacks against Whites that occurred throughout the country following Dr. King’s assassination.  Riots broke  out in over 100 cities as word spread.  Black mobs burned white-owned stores and threw rocks through windows, demanding by their actions to be heard.  Through his presence, our guest was telling anyone interested that although the Kruger family was white, we were not to be harmed.  Nobody attacked our home that night.   
            Bit by bit, I regained my composure as he told me about himself, that he was a lawyer in a nearby community.  We avoided speaking Dr. King’s name, for every time I thought of him, I was again shattered.  Close to midnight, Leon arrived.  I expected our guardian to depart, but he didn’t.  Instead, he told us to go to sleep, and he continued his vigil by the door.  When we awoke in the morning, the room was empty, our guest departed.   
            Before we sat down to breakfast, our phone began to ring.  Calls came from all over the country, urging us to stay home that day.  Friends and relatives were afraid that if we ventured into town, we’d be targets for retaliation.  Those who cared about us were concerned that even the people we considered our good friends might rapidly turn into enemies.
            The first call came from Jack Geiger in Boston.  On the one hand, he wanted everybody to report to work so the clinic could operate smoothly.  On the other, he worried that if the primarily white staff showed up at the clinic, they would be in significant danger.  The next call, coming from my father, involved no torn loyalties. He insisted we take whatever measures were necessary to protect his grandchildren.  More calls came from fellow physicians, friends, civil-rights leaders, all with the same message.  We should remain invisible for a few days until common sense could be restored.
Over breakfast, we discussed our options with the children.  We couldn’t believe the townspeople would harm us and we thus felt safe as long as we stayed within the limits of Mound Bayou, where everyone knew us.  Yet fear lingered in the back of our minds.  What if going out meant risking injury or even death?  As we finished breakfast, Leon and I realized that hiding away was the last thing we wanted to do.  Instead, we wanted to show our friends we trusted them.  It was necessary for us to go to work if we were to continue our relationships with the community. The children said they wanted to follow our lead and go to school.
At first Leon and I wanted them to stay home.  Eventually, however, we saw that they needed to share their grief with their friends, just as Leon and I did, and we gave in to their pleading.  The sadness in the air was palpable, sadness for Dr. King, sadness for his family, sadness for the world.
            When I arrived at school, students were roaming the hallways, quietly hugging one another, too distraught to go to their classes.  As I moved down the hall toward my classroom, students kept stopping to embrace me.  We couldn’t talk, so we just held each other tightly.  Some students wept on my shoulder and  I wept too.  As I walked into my classroom, several students followed me – some mine, some not.  Many more students were there than were scheduled for my first period.
Before I could tell them they should leave to attend their own classes, they said they’d asked the principal if they could conduct a memorial service for Dr. King that afternoon and use the school day to prepare. When Mr. Moore agreed, he offered to provide assistance, but the students said that aside from having their teachers get word get word out to everyone to congregate in the school gymnasium at 1:00 p.m., they wanted to do this on their own.  However, since I was the speech teacher, they wanted to use my classroom as their headquarters.  The students worked diligently, periodically seeking my advice; I felt honored to be included in their efforts.
            The room murmured quietly throughout the morning as the students designed an extraordinarily moving program, typed it up, and sent it to the school’s print shop to make copies.  We were so caught up in the preparations for the service that my earlier fears receded to the background and I stopped worrying about my family’s safety.  It thus surprised me when a student said, “Don’t be upset if you don’t see Philip for a while.  We sent him home for a coat and tie because he’s part of the program.”  I hadn’t even noticed he was gone.
A little before 1:00, I walked into the gym and took a seat close to the front.  A few minutes later, every seat was taken and people were standing shoulder to shoulder in the back.  Close to 1,000 people had shown up, and those that couldn’t fit inside the gym watched from the hallway, hushed so that all could hear.  As I looked about, I realized that mine was the only white face in the entire crowd, and would be until Philip appeared.
            The service began with a song adopted as the Negro National Anthem.  I stood with everyone else as we sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, led by one of my students.  Throughout the program, I tried to keep my composure, to no avail.  My throat tightened up with the first notes of the opening number.  There were several moments when I was unable to contain myself and broke into tears.  The first was when our 100-strong band played the beautiful piece Born Free.  How ironic!  In the late 1960s in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, freedom was in many ways still an elusive dream. 
            The second time I wept when one of my students walked to the microphone to recite a poem that she dedicated to Dr. King. She began speaking slowly, her words ringing out to the captivated audience. . . . “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  As I listened to those familiar words, I knew she had first heard the sonnet just 6 weeks earlier when I read it to my students as a Valentine’s Day gift expressing my love for them.  I was deeply touched as I felt that love again, and felt it returned.  I knew then that my efforts were making a lasting impression on my students, that they would remember and use what they’d learned in my classroom.
            Two hours into the memorial service, 20 students walked on stage, Philip among them.  He stood to the side, dressed in his jacket and tie and holding his guitar, accompanying the small group in a beautiful rendition of We Shall Overcome.  As the last note died away, he slowly approached center stage and requested that we all stand, cross our arms and hold each other’s hands.  Then my 14-year-old son led us all as we sang the song one more time, and I could barely see him.

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