When Irene Curtis was a little girl, she dreamed of a knight in shining armor who would change a world that judged her for the color of her skin – she never imagined that one of her childhood friends was going to be the one to do that.
Curtis, 87, of Aiken, grew up in Atlanta, and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the many neighborhood children who would come by her house to play.
During that time, racial segregation was in place and was said to be “separate but equal.” That was not the case, Curtis said.
Hospitals had colored entrances, there were separate drinking fountains and black children couldn't play at the same parks as white children.
Curtis said that, when her mother took her shopping, she couldn't even try on a hat without having to buy it.
“The same was true for everything we came into contact with. Life was not easy. It was very hurtful and demeaning to all of us,” Curtis said. “We were young and could not understand why we were treated that way because of the color of our skin and the texture of our hair.”
Despite how she and loved ones were regarded, Curtis said many parents at that time taught their children not to hate people but to hate their actions. It was something that she believes really stuck with King.
“This was one of the reasons Dr. King was able to bring all the races together because he didn't preach hate,” Curtis said. “He preached love.”
Monday will mark the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.
Curtis said King was a very smart child, someone who the other kids would often tease. He participated in many debate contests in middle school and was usually the winner, she said.
He was also exposed to many strong orators, including the Rev. William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street Baptist Church and Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was president of Morehouse College where Dr. King attended, and his own father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In 1954, Curtis was due with her third child. She and her husband wanted better for their children, so they moved away from the South and headed west to California.
When King started making newspaper headlines, Curtis couldn't believe her eyes.
Through his leadership, his powerful way of speaking and his bravery, positive change was happening, she said.
“I never dreamed that I was playing and laughing and talking with the little colored boy who was as bright as he could be – that, one day, he would be tapped on the shoulder by God to change the course of the nation and the world,” Curtis said.
In 1964, segregation was abolished.
“I felt so wonderful. We took our children everywhere,” Curtis said smiling. “I was so thrilled and happy that God allowed me to live long enough to see the change through the leadership of Dr. King.”
Curtis has had a fruitful career in education. She first taught in Atlanta and later became a reading specialist in California. She also served as vice principal, principal, Title 1 coordinator and regional administrator to several superintendents.
When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Curtis was asked by the staff of the school she was principal of at the time to tell the students what happened. They knew her story and wanted her to share it with the children. Curtis got on the intercom and did just that.
She said the children were so responsive, and she remembers one little girl handing her a picture that she drew of Curtis and King holding hands.
Curtis said her experience with King showed her the potential that so many children may have to make a positive impact in the future, and she often tries to remind others of that, as well.
“I try to tell all parents to not let anyone put a ceiling on your child's head because no one knows what that child may grow up to become one day,” Curtis said.
“That little boy or little girl may contribute to the country or the world things that can change the course of history.”