Cynthia Poole graduated from college the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington. Jaki Bethea came out of high school the same year that King pushed for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Rocky Twyman tried to go to jail for protesting racism as a child growing up in Atlanta. He was bitterly disappointed to learn that even the most brutal police generally didn’t lock up 12-year-old boys.
Each grew up aware of the civil rights struggle waged by men such as King. Each knew of the sacrifices of others for the privileges they enjoyed: graduating from boarding school, attending college and moving up from the blue-collar occupations that segregation had forced on their parents.
On Friday, Poole, Bethea and Twyman visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as part of their alma mater’s annual reunion. They are graduates of Pennsylvania’s Pine Forge Academy, one of the nation’s few black boarding schools, and they went to pay homage to the man who had cleared their way.
“We grew up knowing about the struggle,” said Twyman, 62, of Rockville, owner of a public relations company. “At school we learned about Dr. King and sang the songs of the struggle. We’d be in class singing the same spirituals that people were singing as they staged marches and sit-ins. That was part of our education.”
Bethea, a business owner who lives in Silver Spring, learned about the civil rights movement and King as a child growing up in Groton, Conn. She saw it played out, though, during annual trips to see relatives in North Carolina.
“I remember that I thought it was wonderful that all the black children got to go to school together,” she said. She went to integrated schools in Connecticut and could sit anywhere she wanted on the public buses. But she was also called names by white children and sometimes treated poorly.
She participated in her first sit-in as a middle-schooler in Southport, N.C., near Wilmington. “Blacks had to go upstairs in the movie theater. I remember marching with the young people in the church” to integrate the movie house, she said. “It was hard for me to learn that they had no choice, because in Connecticut we always had the choice.”
Poole, of Pottstown, Pa., lived in Washington for 40 years after moving to the city in 1967 to teach in D.C. public schools. Her biggest regret is missing the March on Washington in 1963, when blacks from all over the country answered King’s call to converge on the capital to demand equal rights.
“I felt that the crowds would be massive, so I stayed home and watched it on television,” she said. “I was glued to the TV. The thing that impressed me most was the peace. It was the largest, I’m sure, crowd that had ever assembled in Washington, and there was such a peace that day.”
Twyman recalls watching from the sidelines as Julian Bond and Andrew Young worked in Atlanta to help King fulfill his goal of integration.
“The thing that was different about Atlanta was that these were prominent citizens, members of the black middle class,” he said. “They had means, so they could take the risk. The bonds they set after people were arrested were sometimes thousands of dollars. These people could put up their houses as collateral. They didn’t stand aside. They were on the forefront.”
The three remembered where they were when they learned that King had been assassinated. And each remembered the despair and desperation that spread.
“My classroom was on the back of the building, but I remember looking out the front and seeing smoke coming from 14th Street,” said Poole, who began her career at Garrison Elementary School at 13th and S NW in Washington. “They closed school early. I was living in Takoma Park. As I headed up 16th Street, the National Guard was standing at the D.C. line on Aspen Street. They were not letting anybody back into the District. It took most people hours to get home that night.”
Bethea was a student at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., a historically black Seventh Day Adventist college.
“The blacks were so angry,” she said. “They wanted to go into town, but the president did not allow it. He put the school on lockdown, and we had to stay inside. I remember that we had a white teacher. Someone threw a rock at his classroom window.”
The Pine Forge alumni have had a reunion each year since 1975 as a way to reconnect. Several toured the offices of U.S. Senate chaplain Barry Black, a Pine Forge alumnus. Saturday, they attended church together and then gathered in Clarksville for a reunion dinner.
The visit to the memorial had been special, they said. They sang, and they prayed that Congress would unify to pass legislation that would help improve the nation’s economic picture.
“I was more impressed with the symbolism than the likeness,” Poole said of the monument. “It isn’t as striking as the statue at the U.S. Capitol, but I like the idea of him coming out of a mountain of hope at the memorial. That really characterized for me what he was all about.”