King of change: Member of LTCC leadership reflects on childhood in segregated south
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — One Lake Tahoe Community College staff member is using his experience growing up in the segregated south in the heart of the civil rights movement to shape young minds.
Dr. Jonathan King joined LTCC in 2018 as the vice president of student services, a role he sees as “basically is to make sure our students are happy, healthy, excited, ready to learn, ready to grow, ready to graduate, and transfer and flourish and make a difference in the world.”
He knows a little something about making a difference in the world; from watching his grandfather and parents fight for equality, to meeting Martin Luther King Jr., to being one of the first black students in an all-white school and so many other experiences that have shaped him.
Childhood in the south
King grew up in Albany, GA during a period that he describes as “a time when there were very serious segregation issues in the Deep South, a lot of what we call anti-black racism being aimed at African Americans.”
He said that not only did he grow in an underserved community but also a segregated one where signs told him where to go or what he could do.
“It was based on a staunch idea that blacks were inferior,” King said. “So, I was always under that shadow from the time I was a very small kid.”
King’s paternal grandfather, Clennon Washington King Sr., was a civil rights activist who graduated from Tuskegee University. He was a chauffeur for Booker T. Washington, a prominent leader in the African American community and founder of what was named at the time, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
“This man had a big impact on my grandfather’s life,” King said. “My grandfather was able to graduate, and the advice that he was given by [Washington] was go back to Albany and buy up as much property as you can and try to make an impact anyway, you can.”
Clennon King took Washington’s advice and bought several businesses in Albany. He also founded the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
All the while, Jonathan’s father, Slater King was watching and taking notes.
Slater King met his wife and Jonathan’s mother, Marion King, and together they helped found the Albany Movement in 1961, a movement aimed at ending segregation in Albany. Meetings, some of which included Martin Luther King Jr. (no relation), were held at the King’s home.
A 5-year-old Jonathan King was watching in the wings while history happened in his living room. But at the time, King didn’t grasp the significance of the man in his living room, all he knew was that he was considered a troublemaker.
“As a kid, I had mixed emotions. My parents just absolutely adored him and I was trying to figure out why my parents adore him but the whites don’t like him,” King said.
Along the way, King experienced tragedy. In July of 1962, King along with his younger sister and mother, who was five months pregnant were on their way to visit a friend in jail.
They were confronted by police and the incident turned violent.
In an interview Marion King gave in the hospital after the incident she said, “I was being pushed along with my baby girl in my arms. At this time, I was kicked from behind from the second policeman and struck from the front by the first policeman and momentarily I must’ve been unconscious because I understand that I fell on top of the baby.”
Marion’s unborn child died because of the interaction and Jonathan witnessed the entire incident. After she was struck, Jonathan said “all hell broke loose.”
“The worst moment for me was seeing my little brother get killed by a cop,” King said. “That was the worst moment. I mean, face to face, when they knocked my mother down and kicked her in the stomach. And then the day that we went to pick my mother up from the hospital was absolutely devastating for me because she was in a wheelchair and they brought her out and I was looking for the baby.”
He said his family never talked about what happened and he wasn’t allowed to attend the burial.
Going to school
King said he started to really become aware of his status in the world on his first day of first grade when the teacher handed out books. He said the books looked liked they’d be picked from the garbage and then given to the students.
“The book didn’t have a cover on it, pages were torn out … But this is the kind of stuff,” King said. “This is what happens in a racially divided society where people think that they are superior over others, in every single way.
“So that is why I am an educator because I feel like the only thing that can really catapult people of color and people that have been in an underserved community to a higher level is that they have to become educated,” King continued.
King said he learned basically nothing that whole first year of school. Going into second grade, he was chosen to be one of six kids integrated into the white school and because of his rough start in education, he said the other kids could mentally “run circles around” him.
“I’m a middle class black kid, but I was way behind every other white kid in that class, and it was demeaning. It was humiliating,” King said.
Fortunately, his teacher, Mrs. Mayo, helped guide him through the year.
“She helped me catch up a little bit but I’m just thinking, what if I had had three or four more years like that in the black school system? I would have been dead,” King said.
In his third year of schooling, he was again chosen to be part of the integration of the Catholic school where he went until he was 12-years-old. At that age, he said he wanted to go back to the all black school where he could be with his friends.
King eventually went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He also earned his doctorate degree in educational leadership from the University of Texas at Austin, his masters’ degree from the Harvard School of Education in educational administration, and he earned a master’s in international relations from the International University of Japan.
“Positive energy to change things”
Everything King experienced helped him become the man he is today. For him, he believes racism can be stopped.
“Nobody’s born a racist,” he said. “They’re pure-hearted people. I believe that every single person is actually created in the image of God but the people that really screw it up are the people that raise that child. And they’re the ones who racially program that child to hate. So, my whole thing is we have the power to stop that.
“What gives me hope is that I see people every day make change,” King added.
An important realization is that change doesn’t happen overnight, so King said people needed to be given the tools and space to change. And while he’s hopeful, he’s not blind to the current strife in America.
“It just shows you have a long way to go,” King said. “You know, we’ve made some progress. We made some incredible progress. It’s way different than it used to be. I would never want those days over.”
King’s home state of Georgia has made recent news with the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate.
“He had a lot of victories up until that time, but that city was really a hard one for him to crack,” he said of MLK and Albany.
So, to go from an area that was hard for MLK to help the black community to a Jewish man elected to the Senate was an exciting thing for King to see.
“It was exhilarating to watch that happen. I mean, just exhilarating to see,” King said. “But you see how much work African Americans had to do in order to flip that state to blue state, right?
“There was a lot of work. If they would have just sat down and said, ‘Oh, it’s a white man’s problem’ it would’ve never happened. So, it just goes to show that we’re all in this together,” King added.
With February being Black History Month, King said it’s important to use this month to look back on the past and use it to build a better future. And while he is angry about some of the things he’s experienced, he said he’s turning that anger into “positive energy to change things.”
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