By William Thompson
Paul Bell awoke early Saturday to a cold and foggy morning. But the weather did not dampen his spirits.
“Martin Luther King and his marchers had police dogs turned on them and fire hoses turned on them,” Bell said. “I wasn’t going to let a little bit of cold air stop me this morning.”
Bell, a New Mexico State Police officer, was one of about 20 area residents who honored the memory of the slain civil rights leader with a half-mile walk.
He said participants preferred to mark the anniversary of King’s birthday on Saturday, rather than the national holiday, which was Monday.
The Tucumcari marchers sang “We Shall Overcome” as they marched from North Side Park to Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where a memorial service was offered in King’s honor.
Those attending the service watched a 15-minute video biography of King. Included in the video was footage from the historic civil rights march on Washington, D. C., during the summer of 1963.
Dr. Haroldie Kent Spriggs was the guest speaker for the memorial service. She is a retired educator and a former resident of Tucumcari. She said she helped organize King’s march on the nation’s capital.
“It was a very hot day that day in Washington. It felt like it was 195 degrees,” Spriggs said, “but we all felt so happy to be listening to Dr. King and knowing that the world was listening.”
Spriggs told the audience inside the church that she was one of three black students to integrate Tucumcari High School in the early 1950s.
“Before 1952, black kids had to travel to Clovis if they wanted to attend high school,” Spriggs said. “The integration of Tucumcari High School happened two years before the Brown vs. Board of Education case required all schools to be integrated. Tucumcari was ahead of the curve.”
Spriggs said Tucumcari’s early school integration was due to the cooperation of blacks and influential white citizens of Tucumcari who petitioned the state to allow integration of the local high school. School integration was just one issue, however, as Spriggs went on to tell of discrimination in the community.
“The black people had to sit in the balcony of the Odeon Theater,” Spriggs said. “We could barely hear the movie because it was so loud up there near the projection booth.”
Spriggs said black people “knew their place” in 1950s Tucumcari.
“There were businesses black people could not work in,” Spriggs said. “We knew the boundaries between whites and blacks, and we knew not to infringe on those boundaries.”
Spriggs said the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., changed the mindset of America, but having spent her professional career in Washington, D. C., she said she is all too aware of continuing discrimination.