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.
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.
Rumors later persisted that the local government planted instigators to riot and break up the march, Garrett said.
“We never really knew how it started,” he said. “But once it did there was no stopping it. Police moved in and martial law took over.”
Officials imposed a citywide curfew, armed guards patrolled the streets and tanks rolled through neighborhoods to prevent any further riots. Possibly worse than martial law for Garrett was the thought of facing his mother when he got home.
“She was furious,” Garrett said. “She thought I was going to die if I went out there again. But then I think she also understood why I did it. She knew that it was a cause that meant something to me.”
The curfew was lifted a few days later and King would go on to make his “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech April 3 at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
He died the day after delivering the speech at the hands of assassin James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
“We were all just shocked,” Garrett said. “We just couldn't believe he was gone.”
Finding true love
Garrett left Memphis to attend Langston University on a choir scholarship.
But sports were his true passion. Garrett made the baseball team and as a shortstop became one of the school's all-time greats. He later was enshrined in the Oklahoma Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame after a stellar high school coaching career.
But it was as a young student at Langston where Garrett discovered the two true loves that would be so much a part of his life; teaching and a girl named Barbara.
He first spotted her at a fraternity party and told his friends that he would make her his wife.
“When we started talking I just knew it,” he said. “Not only was she beautiful, but she was just so smart.”
Barbara grew up in Oklahoma City and was raised in her family's restaurant, Johnson's on the corner of 15th and what is now Martin Luther King Avenue.
“We had all kinds of patrons in there including whites and blacks,” she said. “My dad had all kinds of relationships within the community so we were known to everybody as an open place to go.”
After meeting Coach Garrett in her freshman year, the two started dating. They married soon after Barbara graduated.
Their careers in the classroom began soon after, Richard became a history teacher and coach at John Marshall High School, and Barbara taught history and social studies at Moon Middle School.
Barbara said her first few years in the classroom were interesting because it was still uncommon in the mid-1970s for a young, black female to lead a classroom.
“I was only about five to six years older than my students,” she said. “I really had to earn their respect.”
She did so by reverting back to King's teachings and keeping in mind what he would've done in a similar situation, she said.
“One thing I always saw in my teachers that I loved was a sense of love,” she said. “Without telling us about the hatred surrounding our race relations, they just poured themselves into us and built us up as people.”
The couple moved from their schools to teach together at Classen SAS in 1999.
They said the diverse culture of the arts and science school was perfectly suited for them.
“This is our home,” Richard said. “I think we strive as much as we can to project love, hope and understanding as teachers. That's what Dr. King would've wanted from everybody, to live and love each other no matter the color of their skin.”