Originally Published: January 19, 2014 6:01 a.m.
She was a student in a college class I was teaching in the summer of 1964. It was my policy to interview students individually in order to learn a little about them and to break down the common teacher-students barriers.
All kept their appointments except for Mrs. C.
In my class she sat on the back row. Although she took copious notes, by the fourth week she was the only one of 93 students who had made no contribution to the daily class discussions, nor had she kept her appointment with me.
It was a surprise then, to see her waiting to talk with me after class one day. After other students had left, she approached me.
"Dr. Barnes, my husband and I have talked it over, and we'd like to invite you and your family to our home this Sunday to have dinner with us."
I was a bit taken aback by this sudden invitation, but I told her I would discuss it with my wife and asked if she would speak with me after class the next day.
It was during the following class that I saw Mrs. C's eyes enlarge. For the remainder of the period she was in a state of great anxiety. When the bell rang, she made a beeline for me.
"Dr. Barnes," she began, "I didn't know! I didn't know!" Tears began to stream down her face. "I didn't know you were white. My husband and I can't ask you into our home. We'd be killed. Oh, I'm so embarrassed!"
I comforted her as best I could, told her how pleased I was that I had "passed" for a month, and that I surely understood why we should not be guests in their home.
You see, I was teaching at Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington, and Mrs. C assumed any instructor would be black no matter how light his or her skin might be.
I was then chairman of the Commission on Higher Education of the Negro for the National Council of Churches. Since my assignment was to help plan the integration of traditionally black and predominately white colleges, I was teaching at Tuskegee Institute in order to learn firsthand about the problems the commission would face in the integration of colleges and universities.
Mrs. C. will forever be in my memory. So will the names of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, the three civil rights workers who were slain that summer in nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Nor will I forget arriving in Tuskegee two days after the only black shopping center was burned to the ground while white peace officers prevented the black owners from hooking up their hoses to fight the fire. The local firefighters (also all white men) arrived "late."
Earlier that spring, the local high school was burned to the ground because it was to be integrated that fall. The Klan took credit for that action.
The Freedom Summer of 1964 was not a period of U.S. history to look back on with pride. But it is a summer our family will never forget.
Which is one reason why tomorrow is important to us. It is when we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
In the struggle for civil rights in this nation, no person made more of a difference. His non-violent approach and his dream of freedom altered the course of American history. We do honor to ourselves by honoring him.
As I reflect on him and his work, I remember Mrs. C. I know we could now have dinner together in her home without risking her or our lives, thanks in large part to the work of Dr. King.
That's worth thinking about tomorrow... and every other day, for that matter.
Dr. Ron Barnes is a retired educator and businessman.