A Tribute in Honor of Dr. King
By Michael T. Johnson, January 16, 2012
Having been raised in Oklahoma from the time of my birth in 1960 until the summer of 1975, life for me was a pretty sweet, compact, and safe arrangement. My family, while not wealthy, had many advantages and was blessed by the warmth of a caring congregation in the two churches my father served as pastor. My peer group throughout my first 15 years of life looked and acted very much like me. Our most regular foray into cultural diversity was Indian City near Anadarko, Oklahoma. When I got to junior high school, we had almost 1500 students. Three of those 1500 were black and I knew all three of them. I thought I was good at relating with people of a different background than my own.
In the summer of 1975, my father was appointed to be “superintendent” of our denominational grouping of churches in Mississippi. I had heard of Mississippi and of Martin Luther King, Jr. but really knew very little about my new home state. I had heard that people of different races had trouble getting along there, but I still thought I was good at relating with people of a different background than my own.
I remember two things about those first few months. First, it was hot in Mississippi in the summer! The kind of hot where the humidity level matched the temperature. I could sweat by simply standing still! Second, the football coach at Jim Hill High School came to my house and said he wanted me to try out for the football team. He had seen my grades and thought I might be able to understand the nuances of the quarterback position. The team had already been practicing for two weeks when I went out, in full pads, for that first time. That first time was also my last as it was still hot! I thought I might die right there on that practice field and I hadn’t even been to my first class yet in the school that would change my life.
Jim Hill was founded in 1912 by James Hill, hence the name “Jim Hill” High School, for the establishment of a secondary institution for African Americans in the Jackson, Mississippi area. The desegregation laws passed in the 60s were slow to be enforced in Mississippi. It was painful… For everybody. Old habits and perceptions die hard, but Jim Hill eventually had white students in its classrooms.
By the time I got there in 1975 it was pretty clear that there was still a lot of work to be done. I still thought I was good at relating with people of a different background than my own, but that notion was becoming less sure by the day. And it wasn’t just people of a different skin color I was struggling to understand. Most white kids at Jim Hill were there because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to the prep schools and academies that were so prolific during that era. I had always been a “Christian” but soon learned that the “Christian education” at private schools was mostly a cover for not having to put up with real integration.
When I tell people that I loved going to school at Jim Hill, if they knew anything about it, surprise was a typical response. The school was located near the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from Jackson State University. US Highway 80 was just to the south of the campus and the north side was bounded by several blocks of shotgun-style, row housing and a cemetery. Ours was a plain, block and brick building typical of schools built in the late 60s. Mr. Emmitt Hayes, a tall, dignified African American gentleman was the principal and he wore a suit and tie every day. Mr. C. L. Walker was the assistant principal and he wore a white short-sleeve shirt and dark tie every day. Mr. Walker was white. He tried to handle the disciplinary matters. Students of both races did not treat him with appropriate respect.
That sophomore year in high school was certainly eventful. Playing baseball for the same man who had invited me to try out for football was interesting. I lasted the whole season this time.
Somewhere in those summer months of 1976, I thought I wanted to play high school basketball and I knew that the team at Jim Hill was loaded with premier talent (three players signed NCAA D-1 scholarships, and one of them eventually ended up in the NBA). I didn’t think I’d ever play at Jim Hill, but a private school just a couple miles south of where we lived offered some promise. I lasted two days. It was obvious that I would never feel at home in a place where my peers really did think of themselves as superior based on the color of their skin. I heard things that made my skin crawl.
Robert Frost was correct about those “two roads.” The road we take really does make all the difference. I made up my mind that I was going back to Jim Hill. I called Jerry Gibson, the man who took the place of the previously mentioned baseball coach. He said he’d be glad to have me back. He was tough, but fair and I still love him. He has won several state championships in Mississippi, but he was also a champion of character.
That road back to Jim Hill also led me to pursue a love of writing. I was especially impressed with an English teacher, Mary Meredith, in my junior year. She was also the faculty sponsor of The Echo, our school newspaper. They needed somebody to write articles about sports at Jim Hill. I was determined to help students at Jim Hill be prouder of their school, so I started a column In the Sportlight. With Mrs. Meredith’s encouragement, I would write about the achievements of our athletes in particular, but generally, I was trying to say “we’re better here at Hill than we think we are.”
Most of the students on staff were black. So was Mrs. Meredith. But none of them, as I recall, ever brought that issue up. In fact, it was several weeks into my work with Mrs. Meredith that I learned her husband had made the news a few years earlier. Soon, I found myself in the living room of James and Mary Meredith. It was a lovely evening of fun, food, and rich fellowship.
I learned a lot from Mary Meredith. She was so full of life and love. She called me “Baby.” She probably called other kids by that name as well, but for me, it was a term of endearment that I still treasure. She taught me more about relating to people of a different background than my own than anyone I’ve ever known, with the possible of exception of my friends, Charles and Shirley Johnson of Meridian, Mississippi.
Here’s what I learned most deeply from Mrs. Meredith. Ultimately, we are all judged by who we are and what we do. Skin color may present obstacles for some, privilege for others, but in the final analysis we’re all responsible for the choices we make. If had stuck with the ill-fated choice of switching schools in junior year, I quite likely would’ve missed out some of the greatest experiences of my life.
So, when I hear Dr. King’s soaring oratory from the Washington Monument, the dream of a day when “people will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” I knew the personification of that dream. Her name was Mary.
I had many wonderful teachers at Jim Hill. David Walker made math fun. Mary McCartney helped me learn how to give better speeches. And I even took a turn on the stage in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I was a pretty good third baseman and I won a couple of certificates for journalism for my work on the paper. My classmates were kind to me when we voted for the all-school awards. I had a great time at Jim Hill.
But what I’ll remember most was learning how little I really knew about relating to people who came from different places in life. I realized that I often had more in common with people of a different skin color than that of my own. Mrs. Meredith helped me figure that out and we never even talked about it. She just lived it out.
My life was inevitably changed by that move to Mississippi in 1975. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world. Actually, it was the end of a world view that was so limited in scope. As I sat with my grandfather at Mrs. Meredith’s funeral in December of 1979, I wept. Sure, I was sad at her untimely passing, but I also wept tears of gratitude. Mary Meredith had helped me learn, for real, how to relate to someone with a background different from my own. And we never even talked about it.