Kilpatrick, an English professor at Miami Dade College, remembers the first time she met King. She was about 12, wearing a dress that “no doubt the good white people had passed down.” She was sitting on the steps of the red brick Mount Zion Baptist Church. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
She was crying because her mother would not let her march, fearful for her daughter’s safety.
“I was looking just as pitiful and ugly as I could, I am sure. And Dr. King walked up,” Kilpatrick said. “He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I told him that mother won’t let me march. He quickly flipped the topic. ‘Did your mother make that good corn bread?’ ”
She saw him several times on his trips to Albany. Sometimes he would chat with the children and ask them if they planned to go to college.
“We always said ‘yes,’ even though we weren’t sure,” Kilpatrick said. “I liked the way Dr. King talked. I told my mom, ‘He talks pretty.’ And the only way you could talk like that is if you go to college. He was the one who inspired me to continue studying.”
Kilpatrick was one of a handful of black students at Albany High School in the mid-1960s. Once, white students beat a black classmate under the back stairs. One of his eyes popped out. When he went to the main office to ask for help, he was pointed toward the pay phone.
“We almost had to physically fight for our education,” Kilpatrick said. “We knew that the only way we could make the playing field even is if we get an education.”
Kilpatrick graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Albany State College. Besides teaching at MDC, Kilpatrick, 62, today helps at-risk middle and high school students prepare for college. She spends hours with them on test preparation and essays.
“I literally grab them by the neck and lasso them down,” she said.
Although she and the others were shaken by King’s death, they were determined to carry on his legacy. King would have turned 84 on Jan. 15, 2013.
“It was like we lived every day knowing that one day they’re going to kill him,’’ said Kilpatrick, who said that when she reached college she was emboldened to fight for her dream of teaching and inspiring others. “Now little black girls will know that they’re smart enough, they’re pretty enough and if they work hard, they can be important.’’