MSUM professor in Memphis on day King was assassinated; Daughter of Deep South came of age during turbulent era for US
MOORHEAD - Camilla Wilson remembers the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
She happened to be in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, picking up photography supplies for a newsletter she was working on for a literacy program.
That evening, King was felled by an assassin's bullet on the balcony of his hotel, dying at a hospital later that night.
"I think he was phenomenal. He was one, if not the, major leader of the era," said the 67-year-old, who teaches in the mass communications department at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
In many ways, King had outshone then-President Lyndon Johnson, who worked tirelessly on the War on Poverty and increasing civil rights and voting rights.
For blacks, long oppressed by racism, both quiet and overt, King was a beacon of hope.
"I think they saw him as the closest thing to a messiah that they would see in their lifetimes. And I would say I concurred," Wilson said.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Wilson said he more than earned the recognition.
"You can talk about individual people and their contributions, which were often tremendous, but no one else immediately comes to mind with the persona and the longtime effect of Martin Luther King.
"His writings. His speeches. The laws that were enacted (because of his work). Nobody else did all of those things," Wilson said.
Camilla "Cammy" J. Wilson was born in Pennsylvania, but she grew up as a daughter of the Deep South in Corinth, Miss.
"The thing that turned me around totally was in ninth grade," Wilson said.
That year, some high school youths had hopped into a truck to toss cherry bombs into a black neighborhood. It was a pastime accepted by the white community and endured by blacks. But one of the boys had brought a gun.
He said he only discharged it into the air, but a 12-year-old black child was killed.
The punishment was limited. One boy went to reform school for a year. A couple more spent about six months in the juvenile lockup, she said.
"I do think that event had a long-term effect on the town," she said. "It didn't reduce racism, but it set a limit."
Integration didn't come until 1969 or 1970 in that part of the country, she said.
Wilson came of age in a turbulent time for the United States. As desegregation battles were being fought in the South, the Vietnam War was escalating.
She graduated in 1963 from Corinth High School and then attended Mississippi State University, earning bachelor's degrees in English, speech and education and a master's in sociology, finishing her studies in three years.
(She later earned a master's in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.)
After stints working for a government literacy program, and as a Red Cross worker in Vietnam in 1967, she got enough commitments from newspapers to become a war correspondent.
She learned that not even combat could cut the barriers of racism, as she'd see the Stars and Bars Confederate flag draped over GIs' bunkers.
"Racial relations in Vietnam were just an extension of racial relations in the South," she said.
"A huge proportion of blacks were in combat units - the people most apt to be killed," she said. It was rare to see an African-American officer, she said.
"There was enormous hostility going on," she said.
When she returned home in 1969, Wilson said there was a growing number of federal programs to improve literacy and protect voting and civil rights of blacks, but "there were no programs in terms of attitudes" of whites toward blacks.
In 1973, she wrote "Voices from Mississippi" an article for New South magazine, which was published by the Southern Regional Council.
In the article, Wilson chronicled the state of race relations in the state in 1972.
"The South, Mississippi in particular, had functioned as a guerrilla theater, acting out the violence and the hatreds which simmered in the so called 'melting pot' of the world," she wrote.
Through the eyes of local leaders, Wilson wrote of the ongoing efforts to ease tensions and improve opportunity for blacks through education and creating jobs.
In the years since, Wilson worked as an investigative reporter for the Dayton Daily News and the Minneapolis Tribune. She also was in Asia as a foreign correspondent.
Over the past couple decades, she said racism has become more subtle.
Whites moved away from cities so their children could attend rural schools. When that no longer worked, they built expensive private schools, she said.
Racism hasn't gone away, it's "just in a different form," she said.
Today you can go into a restaurant and sit down and be served if you are a person of color. A lot of places "will hire a token African-American or two," Wilson said.
She said that there may be surface nods to those who have worked for civil rights, but the South isn't a place where there's a lot of personal change.
The attitude, Wilson said, is "you can make me do it. You can pass a law and make me do it. But I'll never do it on my own."
Wilson said she doesn't see much racism toward blacks in this part of the country. However, she has noticed pronounced racism against Native Americans and new immigrants.
That's something that must be guarded against, and fought, Wilson said.
"I think there is a great smugness. People think that was then, now everything is OK. ... It takes no time at all, if you aren't careful, for progress to be wiped out."