Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published January 20 2013
UND grad recalls meeting MLK, tries to follow in his footsteps
Family members flanked Lowery, then a 13-year-old with a ponytail and bobby socks, as they walked five miles to protest the lack of voting rights black people had in the South. She was there to honor a man she had only met a year before.
Lowery, a 65-year-old doctoral candidate at UND, joins the nation Monday in remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy.
In the decades since that first meeting, his impact on her is evident — she’s chosen to spend her life involved in education and diversity issues.
King often stopped by her father’s general store in northern Lowndes County in Alabama, located squarely between Selma and Montgomery. Her father was the only black man in the area to own his own business, she said.
The civil rights leader was usually on his way Montgomery, accompanied by the Rev. Jessie Jackson or activists Julian Bond and Ralph Abernathy, Lowery said.
Although she doesn’t remember her first meeting with King, she sensed his greatness. He dressed well, wearing upscale Stacy Adams shoes for every march, but stayed grounded as an individual, she said.
“Most of the people he worked with in the South, particularly black, had never finished high school, so he never forgot his upbringing,” she said. “Although he had his PhD then, he had so much respect for the people and they were equal to him.”
He also had a sense of humor. One day, he cracked jokes about wanting to be locked up in the county jail, motioning toward a room in the back of her father’s store.
“We didn’t know what he was talking about until we realized that he thought the post office, because of the bars across the window, was a jail,” she said.
King’s emphasis on nonviolence and racial acceptance has followed Lowery throughout her life, and while she’s had several experiences with racism, few happened here.
Her relationship with UND started in 1971, thanks to a high school recruiter who pointed out its cultural exchange program, which had an agreement with Grambling University in Louisiana. She was interested in fashion, and with her application fees waived because of the program, she could learn skills here for a lower cost, she said.
One of her jobs at UND involved running the former Black Student Union. During her first four years, the program drew a long list of famous speakers during Black History Month, such as Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Ray Charles and Congressman John Conyers.
She also produced many fashion shows at UND and at downtown fabric stores, and earned two bachelor’s degrees in social and behavioral sciences and home economics.
Although most people here weren’t racist, some who lacked cultural awareness made her laugh. At the time, no black people were living here except those at Grand Forks Air Force Base, she said.
In her first week, she and three other black exchange students greeted North Dakotans by saying, “What’s happening?”
Instead of recognizing the greeting, residents “would literally look around and begin to describe what was actually going on all around them,” she wrote in the first draft of a book she’s writing on her experiences.
However, UND had a wide variety of different races and — as unusual as it may sound now — its diversity is one of the reasons she liked being in North Dakota. She gained several friends here from various cultural backgrounds.
“It wasn’t segregated,” she said. “You could go out and meet with anyone in public and sit with them.”
Looking back at the famous march, she feels “bittersweet.” Lowery and her family attended the event in late March, which followed another march in which civil rights advocates were assaulted by police on Bloody Sunday.
Lowery was raised in a family of 13 in Lowndes County, known as the “black belt” for its 80 percent black population. People there were happy to march because they were protected by the National Guard, but if they happened to live on a white person’s land, landowners told them if they voted, they’d have to leave, she said.
After voting rights passed in 1965, her entire county voted, replacing all of the white officials with black people. The first arrest by the sheriff of her county was of a drunk white man who tried to start a fight with local black people at her father’s store.
“We kind of made history,” she said.
She’s since attended annual marches in several states reenacting the one from Selma to Montgomery. But last year, when she was in Montgomery, she walked to the capitol steps and felt deeply moved.
“Just the feeling you get being there after all those years — it’s surreal,” she said. “It’s as if you’re having an out-of-body experience.”
Revisiting King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, she feels today’s black community in some ways is a far cry from what he envisioned. In Birmingham, Ala., where a civil rights museum was erected in his honor, the community suffers from increasing black-on-black crime, she said.
“It’s one of the highest-rising crime areas,” she said. “That’s one of the things he would be extremely disappointed in.”
Years ago, communities were more unified, she said. People gathered each Sunday for mass meetings to sing songs and encourage one another, never knowing if Klansmen were waiting outside to beat them. Black families also had more control of their children, especially in terms of school attendance and maintaining good grades, she said.
The educational world has also changed. Several historically black colleges have lost their accreditation and have advanced little since the ’60s, forcing blacks such as Lowery to seek opportunities elsewhere, she said. In Montgomery, there’s a resurgence of segregation, with most white students attending private schools, she said.
“There are a lot of things Dr. King would be proud of with the black community, and a lot of his vision has come to pass,” she said. “But his heart would be broken at a lot of the missed opportunities, particularly with a lot of the younger blacks that just participate in violence and don’t take advantage of the opportunities that he’s opened the door to.”
Lowery vowed to never do that. She’s spent most of her life educating children, in classrooms across the United States and at juvenile correction facilities, and received her master’s degree at Auburn (Ala.) University. She returned to UND last summer to become a consultant for public schools, and stands among 2 percent of students in the 50 to 64 age range who enrolled at the university this fall.
However, she’s always been ambitious. As a young girl, she told King she wanted to be an attorney, striking a difference between her and her counterparts. A majority of the women in Lowndes County sought jobs as teachers, she said.
“For a young black woman to say she wanted to be an attorney, that was very impressive to him,” she said.
The humble man who made such a strong impression on her as a child left her wanting to live the rest of her life in a similar manner.
“He was able to work for the people, but with the people,” she said.