My History is Now

My History is Now  /mī ˈhist(ə)rē iz nou/   phrase . – 1: an individual’s intrinsic link to the past, present, and future. 2: the idea that every action has historical significance. 3: to urge someone to make the most of the present time.

During college, my grandpa wrote a note to motivate me to keep going. At the end of his message he wrote, “Some things don’t come over night.” That last line really stuck with me. I couldn’t wait to ask my grandpa the questions I’ve asked so many others these past few months. He has a wealth of knowledge. I don’t dive into that wealth as much as I should. We sat down one late Sunday evening to talk of many things. My grandpa and I. Two sides of the same coin. Him, the past. Me, the future. Him, the legend. Me, the rookie. Him, the wise one. Me, trying to figure it all out. Two sides… of the same story. And while we spoke of many things, the unspoken words spoke louder. Him wishing his generation could have done more. Me wishing his generation never had to worry about that in the first place. But alas, some things don’t come over night.

 – Chandler Johnson

Interview with Walter

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

I’m Walter Johnson. My parents are Maxine and Ezell Johnson and I grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Attended Townson Park High School, graduated in a class of 65. And after I graduated, I went out to California and stayed there for a while. Then I moved here to Kansas City. I was dating a young lady from Pine Bluff named Willettta Andrews and we got married and we moved here, settling in Kansas City. I wanted to go back to California, but she thought California was too far because, of course, her mother was up in age, so I wound up coming to Kansas City. So That’s why I’m here today.

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While I was in Kansas City, I would stay with my uncle, he had a lawn service, and I worked and I helped him with his lawn service. I had planned on going back out to California and he said, Well, you can get a job here. At the time the good paying jobs were with General Motors, the post office, and the bakery. So I put an application in at all of them and when I went down to the bakery union, put in an application, the bakery union was the first person that called me. So they called me, I worked over in North Kansas City at Tasty Bakery. And while I was working at Tasty Bakers, the union called me and said they needed some help over at Wonder Bread. And then while I was working at Wonder Bread the union called again and they said, Well, do you need a job? And I said, I’ve got a job. But they said, Well, you can come work here. And it was closer for me over here, cause for North Kansas City, I had no transportation to get over there…so I wound up just going into the bakery on Troost and they accepted me full time. And that’s how I wound up at Wonder Bread. But they will send you around to all other bakeries, what they call a Jobber and that’s where I did. I worked at just about all of them. So, I worked in the bakery for 47 years. In between that time I had two kids, Greta and Walt Jr. and been married for 53 years.

How would you describe/define beauty?

To me, as I’ve gotten older, beauty is something that’s within a person…how a person thinks about themselves… and sometimes beauty doesn’t have to be the outer appearance of a person. You know, a person can be beautiful inside, just their personality. The things that they say or bring out in another person. I say that’s beautiful or uplifting and inspiring. And I mean, we can say that’s not beauty, but to me that’s beautiful. When one person can say something that inspires and uplifts another person.

“We are a race of people who can take something from nothing and turn it into something spectacular.”

How would you describe/define Black beauty? Black style?

We are a race of people who can take something from nothing and turn it into something spectacular. I mean, we may not have much money, but we know how to dress. We know how to put together a good meal. I mean, we can do some ordinary and beautiful things with little to nothing. I think a lot of people, Black people, just cause they’re black, they can get down on themselves…but you know we are just some beautiful people just within and in the things that we do with our creativity.

How would you describe/define Black culture?

You know, the dressing…when you go back…I was looking at a program the other day on Black baseball…how that evolved and came through. I know we would go to church on Sunday and we’d come through and they’d be playing ball and everybody be dressed up. You didn’t go to ball games casually. You’d have suits and things on. It was just a cultural thing. And a lot of other people, you know, they gravitate to that. And so a lot of things that we may not know, but we kind of invented it.

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And I’ll give you another good example. My nephew, Edward was a seamster and would take jeans and cut them out and put different things on them…and he would take the collar off of a shirt, or a jacket, or different things. And a few years after he came out with it, you would see manufacturers doing it. It was just the creativity, the beauty of how he would take stuff and make things out of it and make fashion out of it. And you know, he never got anything out of it. But, then sooner or later you saw it nationwide, everybody was doing it. So you know, it was just the beauty of our mindset about how we can do things…but we didn’t really get a lot of credit for the stuff that we did.

“Well, especially in the South, and even here Kansas City, you had society question you. Like you weren’t a first class citizen, you were like second class, as far as houses and jobs and things.”

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

Well, especially in the South, and even here Kansas City, you had society question you. Like you weren’t a first class citizen, you were like second class, as far as houses and jobs and things.

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I’ll give you a good example. I was working at the bakery, coming in at midnight. So, the fellow who was doing the production figuring, he was a White fellow, he didn’t like doing them…So he told me, Well, Walter, I’m going to show you how to do these figures and then I’ll do your job. And once he showed me how to do them he said, Then you can just come in when you come in and you can do the production figuring and I’ll do your job. And I said, Okay, and I did that for a couple of years and then when the job actually came open, I asked them about it and they said, No, we want someone with a college education. I mean, I’ve been doing this job. How can you say that you want someone with a college education, when I’ve been doing this job all along? And that’s when I signed up and started going to school. And I thought, by the time I get a degree and stuff like that, they will have gone and passed me by. So you know, you feel that you try to qualify yourself, better yourself, to take care of your family, but yet you still had that discrimiation and societal pressures on you at all times because you always had those roadblocks cutting you off, even though you were qualified on a lot of these jobs.

Then in the ‘70s, things really started to change back in the ‘70s. You can see the progression, we made progress. But then after that, look at us now, we made digressions. We didn’t keep it going. And I kind of fault people in my generation for that.

What do you think was the reason why a lot of the progression that was happening in the late 60s kind of halted?

Once Martin Luther King got killed, you didn’t have another charismatic leader, like him. You know, you had Andrew Young, he was an understudy of Martin Luther King and once King got killed he was an ambassador for the Carter administration. But you could see, really once King was killed, you had leaders but their voice wasn’t the type of leader as King. And pretty soon it just slowed down after that.

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And Malcolm X, you had him, and he changed his mind on a lot of things after he visited Mecca and when he came back he changed his mind on a lot of things about the economics movement of the organization that he was in. Yeah, he totally changed his mind on a lot of things. That’s why he broke away from them. Because a lot of things they were doing, he was saying he didn’t feel was right.

And then Old Elijah Muhammed, you know he wanted the United States to be divided up and we would have half of the country and then give the White people half of the country. But, as a kid coming along when he said that…if we don’t have jobs, or you make a product, or you can’t get nobody to buy our product, then we’ll be right back in the boat we were in. They’ll just starve us out. So, I didn’t agree with his plan at the time. It was good, but you have to have a plan where you incorporate everyone in there in order to be able to move your product. So right here in the United States they wouldn’t have accepted that.

“We did field work. And you either went to the fields to pick cotton or stuff like that….and there wasn’t like…where you could go and get a job at like a McDonald’s or stuff like that.”

So, what was it like growing up in the South as a child or as a teenager, like in Arkansas? What was that experience like for you as a black individual?

It was rough. I mean, back then there weren’t jobs to amount to anything. And most of the work that we did do, we did field work. And you either went to the fields to pick cotton or stuff like that….and there wasn’t like…where you could go and get a job at like a McDonald’s or stuff like that…you know they didn’t have Black people do jobs like that. There were good paying jobs, but Black people didn’t do them. So you had jobs like pallet factory or working as a cotton planter, which was the cotton gin and stuff like that…they just had certain jobs for Black people to do, and that was it. That’s why you had a migration of Black people leaving the south. But It was rough, growing up as a kid in the South.

Tell me about what school was like.

In Pine Bluff we went to school, but we were in a district called the Dollarway district. And whatever Dollarway didn’t want, they sent it over to us. When they got new books, they sent the old ones over to us. If they got new football equipment, they sent the old stuff over to us. So everything we got was a hand-me-down. So it wasn’t until I got into high school and started playing football and we got a new coach, he came in and he fought and he got new uniforms and things like that. But up until then…elementary school and up until then…everything was second-hand. There was nothing new that we got.

Walter and grandson Chandler Johnson

Can you tell me like your family and how many brothers and sisters you have and kind of get a little bit of background?

There were 12 of us all together. I’m the oldest, and then there’s June after me. And then I had another brother, he’s deceased, and then there’s Joyce. But there were 12 of us all together. And you know, being the oldest I always had a job. Ever since I was small, I always had a job doing something or other where I could make money. And whenever I did make money, I always would give Mama some or I would go by the store and buy stuff like that. My first job that I started making a little money, I started working at the Holiday Inn. And that’s when I started pitching in and helping Mama and Dad — give them some money for food and stuff like that.

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And another thing that helped us out, there was a place where you could go get commodities. Commodities were government subsidies and once a month you could go down there and get dried cheese, dried eggs, powdered milk, meat in a can, beans, rice, oats…stuff like that. And the more family you had, the bigger quantity you would get. And that helped a lot of people out. Even here in Kansas City, they would get those commodities, the government subsidies that they gave for poor people. That’s what really sustained a lot of people in the South. You didn’t really see a lot of White people doing it, just a few White people getting it. It was almost all Black people. Because there weren’t really jobs in the South that amounted to much of anything.

Have you ever experienced racism or discrimination?

I remember when me, Willetta, Barbara, and Jesse….we went to this restaurant in Pine Bluff one time. As kids we always went to the window to order our hamburgers, but this one time I said, Come on, let’s go inside to eat, so we went inside and ordered. And I remember noticing that it was taking an awful long time to bring our food. And we were just sitting there…and we sat there for quite a long time. Then all of a sudden, the police showed up and they told us, in so many words, that we had to leave. And I said, You know you didn’t have to call the police. If you didn’t want to serve us you just had to say so. You didn’t have to call the police on us. And you know, they didn’t say a word. They just called the police on us to tell us we had to leave.

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And we had a Black park…but if you got caught in the White area of the park either they would chase you out of there or call you all kinds of names. They didn’t even want you walking through there. And I remember us Black kids going over there…and we did jump in the pool there and they shut it down. They concreted the whole pool. Within a week they shut the whole pool down.

I mean, if you went downtown, they had colored water fountains, for colored people, which was hot water. You couldn’t sit down at places like TG&Y and other places. You could order your food, but you had to stand at the corner until they brought it to you, you couldn’t sit down. If you sat down, you had to deal with the consequences.

“You know, we carried stuff like that to protect ourselves. I mean, if you get caught out there, there’s nothing you can do against 4…5…6 fellows.”

You once told me about how you would carry a metal ball welded to a chain to protect yourself in Pine Bluff. Could you talk more about how you would protect yourself growing up in segregated neighborhoods?

Yeah, we had a chain where we would put a metal ball on the chain. Then if someone was going to come up on you, you could swing it and try to keep them off of you. And then we would take the handles off of a metal tub and we would weld them together to make something kind of like brass knuckles and we would use that. Not too many kids down there when we were coming up that didn’t have them. You would go down to the shop and learn how to make your bass knuckles…but you better not get caught with them. And then we had a knife that had kind of a little hook on it. You know, we carried stuff like that to protect ourselves. I mean, if you get caught out there, there’s nothing you can do against 4…5…6 fellows. But you try to protect yourself as much as you can. Cause, I come through there [a white neighborhood]… and I said if one gets close to me, I would pull this chain out and try to keep them off me.

When we watched the documentary 13th together, you talked about the Little Rock Nine. What was it like being so close to that historical moment?

It was a real experience. What they did….those people fought hard to keep those kids out of that school. Not only the kids, but grown people. There were grown people out there, harassing and brutalizing these kids, trying to keep them from going to Central High School in Little Rock. And they had to call out the National Guard to protect them. Even in Pine Bluff, Victoria HIghwater, she was one of my classmates…Dollarway was an all white school and they did the same thing so she went over there. And her daddy was a lawyer and he had to cut some people over there because they were doing the same thing, trying to attack him and his daughter. So back then, it was an extremely dangerous situation for people to even think about something like that. So you have to give those kids credit in having the courage and the nerve to pursue something like that.

The 13th also helped me confront the idea that you were alive when Emmett Till died. What was that like?

They said that he whistled at a White woman…and they just brutally beat a kid to death for that.

See, Emmett Till didn’t grow up in Mississippi. He was there visiting. He was from Chicago. So, this kid had grown up in a different environment. So when he went back to the South, he probably didn’t know about the South. He probably didn’t know the whole story…how different people would respond to you and stuff like that. Since he probably grew up in the North, he was probably just acting like he was used to. But when he whistled at her, they just beat him unmercifully.

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And back then, when you were in Arkansas or somewhere like that, White people had a thing up there…if you’re walking down the sidewalk and some white kid is walking down…they wanted you to get off. And if you didn’t get off the sidewalk, they were gonna do something to you. And they didn’t even want you looking them in the face — no eye contact or stuff like that– so it was kind of dehumanizing, the things they would try to do to you in the South.

Like, John Lewis, our congressman, He was a young man when they did the Selma march and stuff like that. I was around when they went down there across the Pettus Bridge and stuff like that. What people don’t realize, though, it wasn’t adults that got a lot of this stuff started, it was kids and college kids. The freedom riders, they were all kids. And the Little Rock Nine…it was kids that got all this started. As I got older and I look at it now, I just look around and wonder, Where’s the adults? I mean, a lot of adults don’t want to rock the boat, they don’t want to lose their jobs or anything like that, but these kids just feel like they’ve got nothing to lose.

“The police department, when I grew up,…they didn’t have Black policemen….and it was so corrupt. If someone higher up wanted someone beat up or something like that, they used the police department.”

One more thing the 13th talks about is the relationship between Black people and the police. What are your thoughts on that complex relationship?

The police department, when I grew up,…they didn’t have Black policemen….and it was so corrupt. If someone higher up wanted someone beat up or something like that, they used the police department. So instead of protecting the citizens, they did more harm to them. I’ll give you a good example…The three civil rights workers that got killed in Mississippi, who killed them? It was policemen, it was the police department down there. They were all connected to the klan, but they were policemen. And the same thing happened throughout the South. A lot of big officials over the justice system, they would carry out stuff…and it always went back to the police department to do the work for them. So that’s why a lot of people don’t trust the police department — they know what they were capable of doing. It’s like the Black Panther situation in Chicago. The FBI and police department went in and killed those kids, shot them down like dogs. I mean, they could have gone in and arrested them, but they refused to and instead went in and they killed them,. So that’s why in my generation,,,you didn’t have an uprising…but you didn’t trust them. Now when you see things like Michael Brown and things that they were doing in the police department and stuff like that…it just started coming out more and more, but it’s always been there. Corruption has always been there. And it always will be.

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life?

From my point of view…I wish I could have gone on and gotten more education so my accomplishment was that Greta, I wanted her to go on and get a higher education in a field like banking and management and stuff like that, and Walty (his son), I wanted him to go on. And that’s not part of my accomplishments but that’s something that I can see…Like you — I was really proud when you went to K-State and went on to Illinois State and got your masters…and the rest of you all…You know, kids should get an education because whether you can get a job or not, no one can take that away from you.

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So that’s always been something, it’s not an accomplishment on my part, but I’m just proud of you all for doing it and sticking with it. I was just proud that I maybe contributed some of it to those things in life — Greta and Waltie and sending them to good schools and stuff like that.

Greta would ask me, Why do you send us out to Tri-City [Baptist church]? And I would say, I always wanted you all to have a good education, because the school system was bad. In hindsight I wish I could have sent them to a school like a Bishop Miege or something like that because…Tri-City….don’t get me wrong…they were a Christian school and they taught the word of God, but they had their problems too. They didn’t believe in a lot of stuff…they were “Christian” but they were prejudiced. So, I’m glad that I could send them to a private school and things like that, try to get them a better education, but what they do with it after that, that’s on them.

I’m just really proud of you all. That’s my biggest accomplishment. As I go on in my life, I try to do things to bring the next generation along. That’s what I always try to have be my accomplishment in life — to have you all keep coming up the ladder.

“As I go on in my life, I try to do things to bring the next generation along. That’s what I always try to have be my accomplishment in life — to have you all keep coming up the ladder.”

What do you think your life would have been like if you had had the same kind of education as White individuals growing up?

I think it would have opened up a door for me in a lot of different fields. I really do believe that. I kind of wanted to go and be a lawyer or do public service work — I kind of wanted to get into that. That’s something that I never really pursued like I should have, but that’s why I always read political books and stuff like that, because that’s what I like. Maybe help somebody, maybe help our race, you never know until you get into it. Sometimes people can get into stuff like that…and hopefully you don’t get so corrupted that you forget about your people.

What are your dreams? Personally?

Well, as I keep going up in age and things like that…I always wanted to build a business. That’s always been a thing that I wanted to do. And I’d still like to try to have some idea, something that I can maybe, even at my age, something I can get off the ground. Something sustainable, something that’s a good idea, something that I can pass on. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do…have something that I could pass on.

You are one of the hardest working people I know. What’s your mindset about that constant work? What kept you going and not burnt out on working, working, working?

In order to keep the kids and you all moving from here to there, in order to do that, I feel that you had to work and be part of the economic value to society. That was kind of one of my main goals in life. You know, me and your grandma were talking one day…and really Greta and Walt. They kind of grew up in a non-black society. Because when we lived off of Forest and things like that, that whole area that we stayed at, there were hardly any Black folks over there. And then when we moved to Riverpark that was a different story. And then when we moved over to 72nd and Troost, that was a White area. And so in order to try to make a better life for the kids and where they can see things from a different perspective, I guess that’s one of the reasons why I always worked so hard and different things. I was always trying to move myself up. I didn’t want to be stagnant in any one thing. I always had that idea, even as a kid, I always felt that if I could come up with an idea I could help myself up, with the Lord helping.

What are your dreams for society?

My hope for society, in general, is that we learn to look at each individual as a brother. As a society, to look at people as a collective, we’re all in this together. Let’s band together and move up together. Instead of trying to use different terms…like different terms for this race and different terms for that race…and instead of segregating us and instead of having the friction — let’s come together and try to move up together.

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If we can get over a lot of racism then I think we’re going to move up but I think the politics are not allow us to do it. Like, right now the term “Make America Great Again” — you’re saying you want America to be like it was when I was a kid again. You want to live in a White society, when every part of society was White society and you want to cut all the other races out. Right now when I look at it we are almost drifting back to when I was a kid, that’s what we’re drifting back to.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

You need somebody to come up with an idea to incorporate the rest of people into the mainstream society. What’s going to work for the Black people in their neighborhoods? Like right now, you go West of Troost…Why are there so many dilapidated houses in that area? There’s no economic environments over there. They don’t own their own grocery stores, they don’t own their own service stations. But other people can come in and get the money from them. Why can’t Black people get the money for their own things?

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So, you have to bring people in together. There are other people that want to be a part of society too, but you have to have a pocket where everybody can make money, not just a few. Not cut people out, not starve people out. You’ve got to have some way to incorporate everybody, you gotta have somebody with the mindset to know how to do that.

When I was a kid you had neighborhoods where Black people who had little grocery stores, you had Black people who had little clothing stores — just in the neighborhoods. But now, you don’t have that. You have big corporations and it’s hard to compete with big corporations. You didn’t have big corporations back then like you have now. That’s the driving force behind a lot of it, the corporations, because they have the money and they just drive everyone else out of money.

When you think about all of the things that you’ve seen in politics and ideologies, what are your thoughts on how that’s impacted the infrastructure of Black People, Black society?

It affected Black society greatly. When Lyndon Johnson was president, after Kennedy got killed, Lyndon Johnson signed a bunch of bills. He really didn’t want to, but King and all of them were pressing him to do it — they had been pressing Kennedy to do it, but Kennedy didn’t really want to do it. And when Johnson signed them in, he knew that his political future was over because he put in things like the Fair Housing and the Job deal…and right after that you could really see things changing for the Black people.

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And then Nixon came in…and Nixon was a politician who had a lot of good ideas, but he had a lot of racist ideas also. So you could see things start to kind of go back. Then you had Carter with hyperinflation. Then Reagan, he was the one when a lot of the unions started to demise…he busted things like the air traffic controllers and stuff like that.

So, politics play into our everyday lives. The policies that they implement allow people to move forward and up, as far as peoples jobs and things like that. Like I said, we saw prosperity under Johnson and then we saw decline under Nixon and Reagan administrations. You have the republicans, they do things for a lot of big businesses and stuff like that, and then when Clinton came in you saw the market kind of boom…and then Bush came along and you saw things started to go back down. So it’s kind of like a yo-yo. It all depends on who gets in there. And like right now, they’re deregulating a lot of things. And yeah, as long as it’s not regulated things are going to boom, boom, boom…but the thing is, where are they putting the money where people can be effective with it? So yeah, politics can play a big part in our everyday life. How we prosper or not prosper, it affects our life greatly.

What advice would you give to other Black people?

I think what we need to start doing — going back to the old days — a lot of people didn’t have education but they believed in God and that the Bible would get them through a lot of things. And I think we’ve gotten away from that quite a bit. From our upbringing, our Christiantiy, our beliefs, and things like that. And sometimes I think we need to get back to that. And a lot of people say things like, Well that doesn’t work anymore… Well how do you know it’s not working if you’re not trying it? So I think we need to get back to that as a race of people.

What advice would you give to non-Black individuals to help them understand the Black experiences?

First, you’ve got to get to know ‘em. In order to understand the Black experience, if you haven’t been around, if you don’t know them…you need to learn the culture and know where they come from. Like they say, until you walk a mile in another person’s shoe you don’t understand where they’re coming from. So a lot of people don’t understand the Black struggle. We’re always going to have this problem because if you’ve always had it on easy street you’re going to be like, Well how come they are always over there complaining about something. If you’ve got everything you want, and you see someone out on the corner begging and stuff like that, if you’ve never experienced it then you won’t understand that. And sometimes people, we just get numb to stuff like that and we just get angry. But you’ve got to understand a person’s culture to understand where they’re coming from. And as a society we don’t do that.

“We need to admit and think about, How do we do better? You need to keep things for people to try to not just talk about it, but to move it forward to a bigger project.”

What advice would you give to me?

What you’re trying to do now…I like it. And just keep moving forward with what you’re trying to do. Just have an open mind about what you are trying to do, like bring awareness to society about a lot of things. And our history needs to be talked about and dealt with all the time. And I think that is something that a lot of times we forget. We forget about people in the ‘60s and ‘50s and the struggle that they had to go through and once we’re on easy street, we forget that we need to admit that there was a struggle. We need to admit and think about, How do we do better? You need to keep things for people to try to not just talk about it, but to move it forward to a bigger project.

Last question, what was it like when Dr. King died?

I was at home. Matter of fact… I had just gotten off from work and I was asleep. We were living on the 31st and Forest when he got killed. We heard all this gunfire and your grandma said, what is going on here? We heard this boom, boom, boom. They started rioting. We went out there, we smelled all this tear gas and we was like what’s going on. Then, when we turned the TV on they said Martin Luther King was killed. Then after that, they started to riot. They started burning — It was 31st and Prospect all the way down to 27th street. It was Black owned theater, Black owned furniture store. That whole area was Black owned and they burnt that whole area up. There was a hotel there and they just burned 31st street all the way back. It was just devastating. They just never were built, nothing back up in there for years. But that’s where I was at… I had just gotten off of work and was in bed asleep when I heard that he had gotten killed.

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It was devastating. We knew we had lost a great leader. And, you know, you’re not going to have another Martin Luther King. Cause I mean, you know, he was kind of like one of a kind. I mean, you had Abernathy. Abernathy wasn’t a Martin Luther King. Either was Andrew Young. I mean he was so good with his words and how he came across that he could just bring out thousands of people. So the United States lost a great Black leader.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Additional Information

Photos of Walter and Chandler were taken by Beth Stratbucker Photography:

Interview Date: February 23, 2020

Day 31 — Story posted on March 1, 2020

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