I was born and raised in northeast Washington , DC , in a section known as Trinidad . I grew up on Owen Place , a street between Montello Ave and Trinidad Ave, NE. My family moved to Owen Place in 1945, and, ironically, was the first African American family to move onto the block.
I attended Wilson elementary school on the corner of 6th and K St, NE. Wheatley Elementary is on the corner of Neal St. and Montello Ave, NE , within two blocks walking distance of my family home. Yet I had to catch a bus to go to Wilson Elementary over a mile from home and by pass Wheatley every morning.
As a child, I would wonder why but it was one of those mysteries not clearly defined by my family to me and it seemed as a child to be no big deal. My family was from the south and shielded the inequities of segregation and the evils of racism from my brother, my sister, and me. Racism and segregation was a part of everyday life accepted by families like mine from the south as part of their existence.
I remember being in the first integrated class of Wheatley when I entered the 5th grade and still was not totally aware of the segregated society that I had been a part of. I remember studying history and not really seeing or being able to identify with Black people, because all history at that time being taught consisted of the history of western civilization and culture or American (White) history. We leaned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Davey Crockett and Wyatt Earp were big frontier heroes. Even God was a white man with a flowing white beard and hair to match, and Jesus Christ was a younger white man with a darker beard and long hair down to his shoulders.
I succinctly remember one black person being taught as being a hero during the American Revolution, and his name was Crispus Attacks. I remember wondering at the time what made him a hero and why was he singled out. He happened to be in a crowd of people that were shot by English soldiers and he happened to be black. I never could figure out what was heroic about that nor, at the time, did I understand the significance of why he, of all the heroic Black people throughout history, was singled out and given to us (Black children) as being a hero.
This naivety of thinking remained with me up until my high school years. I remember about a black lady refusing to give up her seat on a bus. I remember about sit-ins and protests, about Medgar Evars being murdered, about a bombing of a church, and civil rights workers being killed. Even with all that atrocity my most vivid memory is of a remarkable man, a preacher, who began to become prominent as a spokesperson against all of the evils entwined with bigotry, segregation, and racism. He spoke eloquently yet forcefully and firmly. He spoke with a gentleness of conviction, and his powerful message of non violent confrontation as a means of battling racism began to resonate throughout America.
He stood up for us as African Americans perhaps as no other before him. He was, to me, our savior, our Christ. He led marches and protests against racist and segregation against some of the vilest and most ruthless people in this county. He was beaten, stabbed, locked up, attacked by dogs, and water hosed. Yet he seemed to rise, larger than life, above it all.
And he became my first hero. He opened my eyes like no one before me had. I began to listen to his speeches, enthralled by his every word.
I remember this great man being able to call a march on Washington and give perhaps the most magnificent speech ever delivered in the history of mankind, with the entire nation as well as the entire world enthralled.
And most vividly I remember that fateful day in 1968 when an assassin's bullet bought to an end the incredible life of this wonderful, magnificent human being. I remember crying unabashedly and unashamedly as if it was my own father that had been murdered. My first thoughts were how could they do this to this great man?
Now today I keep his philosophy and teachings ever fresh in my mind. For we are in a struggle today as important as the struggles that surrounded us in the 1960's demanding our civil rights. Just as the assassination of this hero by a gun, my son was murdered due to gun violence. And, coincidentally, his birthday is January 17.
Death by gun violence is the number one epidemic facing our young men today and it is not being addressed by our nation politic, just as our civil rights were not being addressed prior to the 60's. We must have a call to action, like Dr. King's movement, to address the epidemic of violence, of gun violence, of homicides, and of increasing incidents of youth violence if we have any hopes of pursuing Dr. King's dreams as a nation.
Kenneth E. Barnes, Sr., MS
ROOT (Reaching Out to Others Together), Inc.
811 Florida Ave, NW Washington, DC 20001
Tel: (202) 332-ROOT . Fax: (202) 332-8250
Toll Free: (866) 570-ROOT
Photo taken on 27 August 2006 in Washington DC during the ROOT Rally for Public Safety & Against Gun Violence. Though Mr. Barnes is of no relations to me I have supported his efforts at ROOT Inc.