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.
Miller, who earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from Florida Atlantic, became an administrator with Broward County schools. He helped start the district’s diversity programs, focusing on equal educational and employment opportunities for all.
“King was dedicated to the uplifting of his people,’’ he said. “My life has also been dedicated to the uplifting of people.”
King’s message revolved around non-violence. If people throw stones while you march, do not throw back. If they yell insults, do not yell back. If you are arrested while sitting at the whites-only lunch counter, do not fight back.
“At that time many people found his message more palatable,” said David Jackson Jr., a professor of history and chairman of the Department of History, Political Science, Public Administration, Geography, and African-American Studies at FAMU. “Malcolm X’s message at a given point was to fight fire with fire. But King’s message had a more popular appeal because of its non-violent aspect.”
It was the emphasis on non-violence that drew Priscilla Kruize to King. She met him for the first time at a 1959 Congress of Racial Equality meeting in Overtown.
“Everything Dr. King said made sense to me. He was saying that you could have peace and harmony and integration through love,” said Kruize, 74, who lives near Palmetto Bay.
Kruize and her sister, Patricia Stephens Due, started a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter as students at Tallahassee’s FAMU, a historically black university. They went from room to room in the dorms and signed up 10 people, two of them white students at Florida State University.
They organized sit-ins at diners and the local swimming pool. In 1960, the sisters, several fellow students and a maid were arrested for sitting at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter near FAMU. They spent 49 days of a 60-day sentence in jail, rather than pay $300 in fines.
King sent the jailed students a telegram: “Through your decision you have again proven that there is nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom.’’
Kruize and her sister, who died last year, became well known in civil rights circles. Due and daughter Tananarive Due, a former Miami Herald reporter, co-wrote, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. The book has won numerous awards.
Kruize, after a stint of teaching English in Ghana, founded the Black Heritage Museum in 1987, a nonprofit that teaches black history by hosting exhibits and speeches at museums and cultural centers across the country.
“Instead of protesting, I was exhibiting,” Kruize said. “The lunch counters are desegregated, so you look for other needs. It’s a continuation of his dream.’’
King’s dream didn’t come easy. Civil rights advocates faced tear gas, high-pressure water hoses, billy clubs and lynch mobs.
“I was so afraid that this was going to happen to us,” said Renée Kilpatrick, who grew up in Albany, Ga., about three hours south of Atlanta. “I was scared because my parents were scared. For Martin Luther King to come to Albany and even suggest that we could do better, it scared us to death.”
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.’’