In Dr. King's footsteps

Memoirs of Dorothy Williams, an Oak Park Arms resident

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Oak Park Arms resident Dorothy Williams told her story to Elmhurst College students Luke Feistamel and Diamond Dixon. Here are excerpts from her recollections of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and her experiences with racism.

We met at a side street off Woodward, the city's main thoroughfare. People of Detroit of all types came together on that sun-baked afternoon. Jews, Gentiles, blacks, whites, the physically handicapped--thousands of people congregated at the beginning of what was to be one of the largest marches in the history of Detroit, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was decked out my sundress, and the Sunday heat bronzed my skin. People from all walks of life began to march, cutting a peaceful path through the Motor City. Stillness blanketed the city. They were there for a noble cause and everyone seemed to have the bigger picture in mind.

There were those in the crowd who would try to stop the movement: the informers. Men dressed up like the average citizen, indistinguishable from any of the legitimate followers for Dr. King but working for the FBI. These men showed up everywhere Dr. King had a march, and it was their intent to destroy what he had worked for. But nothing would stop the crowd that afternoon.

The throngs marched to Cobo Hill, where they had to bring out speakers to amplify the voice of Dr. King because so many people had shown up. And finally he came out to speak. This was where he first gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. He famously gave it again less than a month later in Washington, D.C. I only regret that I wasn't there to see it then.

When the news replayed the speeches on TV, they didn't show how things really were. They spliced the audio to make the speakers say things far more malevolent than he peaceful messages I remembered hearing. They turned the speakers into rabble-rousers in the public eye. That's when I stopped trusting the media.

There's a long history in this country of blacks being held down, so none of this surprised me. I remember how hard it was for blacks to vote in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. Aside from obstacles like poll taxes, blacks had to know the entire constitution by memory before they were allowed to cast a ballot. A friend of mine had a photographic memory and had easily put the entire constitution between her ears. With her head held high, she went to the polling station and answered all the questions correctly. After she had voted, the official took her ballot and tore it into pieces, looking her dead in the eyes. Scenes like this were common in the South.

Even in the North, it was difficult for blacks to vote, although the discrimination was more subtle. Factory managers would deliver thinly veiled threats like, "Joe Smith is the best candidate," and "Keep your jobs in mind when you're at the polling place." Managers couldn't go into the booth with you and look over your shoulder, but people were scared. Jobs were scarce as hen's teeth, and once you got one you didn't want to lose it. It came as no surprise when the men the factory managers had "suggested" won the elections in their ward.

The money the blacks had earned they weren't really saving, and they didn't have much money anyway since it was so difficult to find a job. The jobs they could get didn't pay much. At one time you couldn't even buy a car without having the white man, the so-called "Mr. Charlie," sign for it. Home loans were out of the question. My sister was one of the first black people in Detroit to get an Federal Homeowners Association load after that Civil Rights Movement. Our family was so proud.

I earned two masters degrees in teaching, but I received a substitute's salary because I was African-American. Technically, I was an ESRP, an emergency sub with regular position. This was just an undemocratic way for the higher-ups to avoid paying blacks the same salaries as whites. Prejudices like these were hard to deal with, but I stuck with it because of my love for teaching.

With the civil rights movement came busing. It was mandated that schools be integrated by reassigning white teachers to black schools and vice-versa. Instead of going to the inner city, many white teachers decided to take sabbaticals--to avoid teaching the black students. White people often moved to a different community or transferred their children to private institutions. Busing became a joke rather than a solution to segregation.

When integration started, African-American students were not eager to leave their friends and their neighborhoods to get a "better" education. In my eyes, busing made the school situation worse. There were more fights and behavioral problems due to the integration of the students. Funding for the school programs had been revoked, and classrooms were packed and chaotic. Because of the difference in educational systems, the black children were far behind the white children. That made it hard for the teachers to teach one cohesive curriculum in the classroom. But I knew it wasn't up to me to make policy. I just needed to teach the children.

Even now, in a big city like Chicago, racism hasn't disappeared. I can look back on my life and see that things have gotten better and that people are more aware and less closed-minded than they used to be. But there's still a lot to be learned and a lot to be taught.

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