A member of the Memphis 13 highlighted a virtual Zoom event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day hosted by the newly established CommUnity Coalition of the Five Towns, Valley Stream and the Rockaways on Jan. 18.
Dwania Kyles was one of the first 13 Black first-grade students to enroll in previously all-white schools in Memphis, Tennessee on Oct. 3, 1961. The students enrolled in Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools.
“When I think back to that day, it was extremely traumatic to say the least,” Kyles said. “My father walked me up to the steps and he told me that he would never repeat some of the things he heard. I was too young and didn’t hear the words.”
Kyles said that her father who was a local pastor at a Memphis church had a friendship with King who was scheduled to have dinner at their home the night he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. “As a 12-year-old, I never experienced such a high and a low like I did that day,” she said. “I remember being so excited that day and then his brother came to our house that night to break the news to us.”
The CommUnity Coalition was founded in response to the nationwide unrest caused by the police shootings of Black people nationwide. Alongside Kyles, the panel included: Lawrence School District Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen, Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom and Rev. Gregory Stanislaus, the pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Inwood. Michael D. Cohen, the Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, moderated the panel.
Hain recalled where he was when he learned King was assassinated. “This was a time of enormous shocks taking place in America,” Hain said. “We had these great heroes such as Dr. King being killed when I was a teenager. That was overwhelming for me.” He noted the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the killing of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, two months after King was murdered.
Stanislaus recalled the impact of attending King’s “March on Washington” with his family on Aug. 28, 1963. “Growing up in Brooklyn, we never really went on too many trips until one morning my father woke us up and said we’re going on a trip,” Stanislaus recalled. “I asked my father why we were there and he said because this is history. I just cherish that he had brought my brother and I to Washington D.C. that day.”
From an educational perspective Pedersen said that it is important for schools to teach about love and hate. “In education, people sometimes think that we’re just speaking to the head as we want our kids to read and do math,” she said. “But it’s very important to teach the heart. As a community, we have to call out hate when we see it.”