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Dr. Martin Luther King Day March 1988

Updated on April 25, 2020
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Twenty years after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, I took part in a Freedom March. This account tells of my experience.

April 4, 1968

I was seven years old when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember that day clearly, because it made absolutely no sense to me. One positive thing about Oakland CA, where I was born and raised, is that there is very little racism there. At least I never came across any. Sure, the Black Panthers got their start there, and my brother, who is 2½ years older, started mingling with wannabees in his 4th grade class, until my father had a talk with him that put an end to it. The Black Panthers were formed to protect black men against abuse from the police, but when I got older, my personal experience with the police was that they are indifferent, rather than brutal. I’m digressing – back to the subject.

The people around me referred to the civil rights leader as “Dr. King”, so I assumed he was a medical doctor (what 7 year old knows about PhDs?). All they said about him was, “He’s a good man.” Okay – aren’t all medical doctors good? After all they cured people, right? Maybe if I got really sick, they’d take me to see him. It puzzled me that in all the pictures I saw, he was wearing a black suit and standing behind a podium, rather than a white lab coat in a doctor’s office.

On that fateful day, Wednesday, April 4, 1968, I was in my second grade classroom. The history articles say he was shot around 6pm Central Time, which would have made it 4pm Pacific Time, but I would not have been in school then. I remember it being 2 minutes before 11am. The reason I remember so clearly is because for the next two years, on that day, our class maintained a vigil of 2 minutes of silence. In 1971, April 4th fell on a Saturday. By the time it became a weekday again, the schools were no longer holding the vigil.

We were doing our schoolwork when our principal walked in from the hallway and, totally ashenfaced, told our teacher, “Dr. King’s been shot.” Turning ashenfaced herself, she yelled at the class, “Everybody run home!” She didn’t bother to line us up, she just threw open the outside door, and we all dashed off.

The playground was full of running kids. I was totally confused. Why would anyone shoot a doctor? And what was running home going to do?

I lived about a mile away. No one was home when I arrived there. My brother came in a few minutes later, and he yelled orders; “Lock the door! Close all the shades! Don’t go outside! Don’t talk to anybody!” Frightened, I did as I was told.

Then he went out into our back yard. “I thought you said don’t go outside,” I told him.

“That’s ok, this is our back yard,” he answered. So I went out, too.

The kids on the other side of the wooden fence climbed up, and he began talking with them. “I thought you said don’t talk to anybody,” I admonished him.

“That’s ok, they’re black,” he replied.

I was totally confounded. “So?”

Freedom Train 1988

It would be another two years before I learned about prejudice, and could make sense of the whole scene. When I reached the 4th grade, my class watched educational TV which featured various social studies topics. One day, they showed a program about prejudice, and it was then the Civil Rights movement was explained to me. It still made no sense, since I never actually witnessed any events like that. California did not take part in the African Slave Trade. The reason prejudice against blacks exists there is because there was a mass migration from the South during World War II, and some of those people brought their attitudes with them. According to what I’ve noticed, most white people in California are open-minded and civilized; the few that are racist are far more likely to direct it at Mexicans, because being natives and so many of them, they’re considered a greater threat. I’ve also noticed Mexicans handle it much better than blacks – but I digress again…

In the late 1970s, there began a drive to make Martin Luther King’s birthday, which is January 15th, a holiday. It was officially established in 1986, as a floater; the 3rd Monday in January. It would still be a few more years before offices closed on that day; for awhile, you had to specifically ask for that day off. In 1988, the Holiday fell on January 18th. I had a co-worker whose father was an African Studies professor at University of the Pacific, and he told me about a re-enactment of a Freedom Train and Freedom March. CalTrain allowed for people to board in San Jose and ride 50 miles to San Francisco for free; the March would start there and end at the Civic Center. I decided to take part.

I boarded CalTrain in my hometown of Palo Alto, and rode to San Francisco. The only thing I noticed different from any other commute is that most of the people on the train were black.

I had expected my co-worker to be there; I was disappointed that he wasn’t. As it is, I wound up going alone – but was joined by thousands of friendly strangers.

Walk Together Children, Don't You Get Weary...

Once in San Francisco, we milled around talking. People of all ages were there, including little kids. I didn’t meet anyone who had been in an actual march in the past, though some were old enough to remember. The Guardian Angels were there. Some major cities, like New York, employ the volunteer task force Guardian Angels to help the overwhelmed police. My brother, who was living there at the time, told me there was a case where a GA made a citizens arrest, but since he hadn’t followed exact procedure, the criminal was let go and the GA arrested!

Anyway, none of that happened here. We assembled in a wide line, and began marching towards the Civic Center. Several people were carrying signs on which slogans were printed. Some high school girls behind us sang a military type song; “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but black people is mighty bold.” The song puzzled me, because the violence in Oakland public schools taught me that blacks can afford to be a little less bold. Then it occurred to me the oppressed ones in the South must be different.

Crowds observed on the sidelines, cheering us on. Some gazed out from office windows. Policemen on horseback also watched, but it was to protect us, rather than attack. It was like the 1960s, only much better, because of all the positive support.

The march from the CalTrain station to the Civic Center was about 2 miles long. It took us nearly an hour to get there. When we arrived, the auditorium was full. A woman onstage announced, “The Freedom Riders from the Freedom Train have come1” and everyone cheered. We proceeded to the front, where the best seats had been reserved for us. I felt guilty; I had done nothing to deserve such an honor. I hadn’t even paid for a train ticket!

Freedom March 1988

Guardian Angels
Guardian Angels
Final Destination
Final Destination

San Francisco Civic Center

...There's a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land

The program lasted for about 3 hours. There were various speakers and musicians; three girls did a rap song they had written promoting peace instead of war. The highlight was when Reverend Cecil Williams preached. He is the president of the famous Glide Memorial Cathedral, which conducts ultra modern church services and helps the homeless throughout San Francisco. He strolled to center stage to a resounding roar and round of applause.

He gave an electrifying speech about nonviolent protest, melodramatically removing his suit jacket in the process. He told a story about a black woman and white woman who lived next to each other, and how the white woman would throw chicken droppings in the black woman’s yard. One day, the white woman took sick, and the black woman brought her a meal, along with a bouquet of roses. The white woman complimented the flowers, asking how she’d grown such lovely ones. The black woman told her she’d used the chicken droppings as fertilizer.

The audience gave rousing approval of the story, but personally I had to disagree. Sure, maybe it “heaped coals of fire” on the white woman’s head (quoting the Bible Proverbs 25:22), but it didn’t work for me when I attended Oakland public schools. In my experience, that just gives your oppressors more opportunities to kick you in the head. I personally believe there are times when you have to resort to violence. I’d heard of a play an acting troupe put on describing a debate between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (imaginary, since though they met, they never got to discuss their beliefs). How I wished I’d gone to see it! Both were great leaders, and I believe there is room for both their theories.

At the end of the program, the woman who had announced the arrival of the Freedom Train Riders had us recite a mantra about giving us strength and wisdom. A man from the audience interrupted us by yelling out, “WHAT ABOUT THE HOMELESS?! WHAT ABOUT THE HOMELESS?!” I thought to myself, recite the mantra, jerk! And pay Glide Memorial a visit sometime!

There was no organized march back to the CalTrain station. Some people walked, and some caught the bus. Since I didn’t know which bus to catch, and the distance wasn’t that far, I walked. We rode CalTrain back to our destinations. It was nighttime when I got off in Palo Alto. I drove to my favorite restaurant, Portola Valley Kitchen, to finish my celebration. However, it was closed Mondays, so I went to the restaurant next to it and ate there. It was empty, but the food was good.

When I arrived home that night, I told everyone in the house about my adventure. My elderly white landlady from Minneapolis tapped my arm and said, “Now I’ve touched someone who was on a Freedom March!”

Ironically, I had not met one person who had actually attended the original Freedom Marches. That didn’t happen until 9 months later, when a woman named Mary moved in. We wound up becoming best friends. She was a Quaker, and she had met Dr. King when he led a march in her hometown of Fresno. She said he was a hearty, robust man, while his wife was very stern. So there was my closest connection to the Civil Rights Movement – not in the Deep South, but Fresno, CA!

Either way, if Dr. King could have seen it, I believe he would have been very pleased.

© 2014 Yoleen Lucas


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