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Oklahoma City teaching couple share Martin Luther King's message

Richard and Barbara Garrett have taught more than 80-years worth of history and social studies classes in Oklahoma City Public Schools. Both products of the civil rights movement, they both try to illustrate the message of Martin Luther King's dream.
by Adam Kemp Published: January 20, 2014

A young Richard Garrett stood near the back of the march and watched the madness flow his way.

Rioters smashed store windows. Looters took anything not tied down. Police fired tear gas sending the crowd away in a flood of confusion and panic. A police shotgun blast claimed the life of a 16-year-old boy.

It was March 28, 1968, in Memphis, the last march of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was supposed to be a day of peace.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to march with Dr. King,” Garrett said. “Then it turned from once-in-a-lifetime to something like a nightmare.”

Garrett, now 62, stands at the front of a classroom at Classen SAS High School. He's joined by his wife, Barbara, 61, who also teaches at Classen. It's their lunch break. As the nation today celebrates the 85th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the couple recently reflected on racial progress made since the civil rights era and how far the nation has come in accepting the principles of equality that King espoused.

“Dr. King taught me about the power of hope and believing in your fellow man,” Garrett said. “I think kids can read into that and they can pick up on that. To be able to relate his message and his ideas to others through teaching, that's what it's all about.”

The Garretts officially retired from teaching about six years ago but can't seem to stay away from leading a classroom. They serve as frequent substitutes. Students stop by in packs to visit the Garretts, who many think of as the grandparents of the school. Nobody ever refers to Richard as, “Mr. Garrett.” It's always “Coach.”

Combined, they've taught more than 80 years worth of history and social studies classes in Oklahoma City public schools. They've seen the city and district grow and diversify, the closed door of racial inequality ripped off its hinges and the dream of King unfold.

Turbulent time

In March 1968, Garrett was 16-year-old high school student living in the heart of Memphis with his mother and eight siblings.

Racial tension boiled in the city. At month's end more than 1,300 black sanitation workers entered their 17th week of strikes, citing years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions and the deaths of two co-workers.

By then, King had become a powerful voice for the nation's black community. He'd led the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, the Selma march and the March on Washington, where he'd delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Now, he came to Memphis to be voice for the sanitation workers. He would lead a protest march to city hall to show support for those on strike.

Businesses closed down, schools let out and the city went on a heightened state of alert due to the hundreds of thousands expected to take to the streets.

Garrett's mother, Corrine, told him he would not be one of them.

“I snuck out because I just had to go,” he said.

A neighbor down the street offered to drive. The two made their way to Beale Street in the heart of downtown Memphis.

A sense of excitement permeated the scene as Garrett fell in line with rest of high school and college-aged students near the back of the marchers. Many carried signs with the message “I AM A MAN.”

“We just had this real feeling of hope,” Garrett said. “Dr. King was such a figure that we all were just incredibly excited to follow him.”

What sparked the riot remains a mystery. A group of black youths smashed windows of department stores along the route.

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by Adam Kemp
Enterprise Reporter
Adam Kemp is an enterprise reporter and videographer for the Oklahoman and Kemp grew up in Oklahoma City before attending Oklahoma State University. Kemp has interned for the Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Gazette and covered Oklahoma State...
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