On the morning of Aug. 27, 1963, Shirley Johnson’s mother lined a shoebox with foil and filled it with fried chicken, chips and pound cake.
The food was for 16-year-old Johnson, her 15-year-old sister Verna and their father. They were embarking on an 18-hour bus ride from their home in Jackson, Miss., to Washington, D.C., to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Johnson, a senior in high school, remembers the scorching heat and the throngs of men and women, clad in their finest church clothes and carrying signs such as, “We Demand the Right to Vote.” Wearing her best jeans and a T-shirt bearing an NAACP logo, Johnson crossed Pennsylvania Avenue when she first heard his voice.
“I heard this melodious voice, saying, ‘I have a dream.’ Nothing else mattered. When he began to speak, no one moved,” said Johnson, now 66. “When he talked about little black girls and little black boys holding hands with little white girls and little white boys — as he talked about what it looked like in his dream, his dream became my mission.”
Her mission? Make sure “every child knows their worth.” It led Johnson to become a teacher at Palm Springs North and Miami Gardens elementary schools and curriculum supervisor with the Miami-Dade school system. “When I came back, I’ve never been the same. It has influenced everything I did, everything that I do today.’’
Like Johnson, many others fighting on the civil rights front 50 years ago altered their life’s arc after meeting or hearing King, who was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
A student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), arrested for sitting at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter, would later teach in Ghana and found a black history cultural program to teach people about contributions made by the black community. A 12-year-old who met King on the church steps in Georgia decided to study hard and now is a Miami Dade College professor. A student at Morehouse College in Atlanta who heeded King’s call to organize earned a Ph.D., helped start the diversity program for the Broward school system, and now chairs a voting rights group.
“I’ll never get away from Dr. King. He is engraved in me,” said Dorsey Miller, of Parkland. Miller is chairman of Operation Big Vote, which promotes voting issues in the black community.
Miller, 70, first met King while he was a student at Morehouse. The college had brought in King, who graduated from Morehouse in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, to a luncheon that Miller attended in 1964 .
“He talked about giving back,” recalled Miller, one of the student government delegates.
King inspired Miller to co-pilot the sit-in movement in his hometown of Ocala. As a leader of the Marion County chapter of the NAACP, Miller joined others in leading sit-ins to desegregate the Marion Hotel, McCrory’s and a Liggett’s Drug Store.
Miller remembers seeing King on several occasions while at college. King was a philosophy professor at Morehouse while Miller was a student. King liked to eat at Paschal’s, a noted Atlanta restaurant where he often met with civil rights leaders to strategize.