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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
DeLois McKinley-Eldridge shows photos from various trips she’s taken with students to Alabama to educate them on the civil rights movement.

Right in the heart of civil rights storm

Educator idolized MLK as Alabama teen

– It was 1962 and Dee McKinley was a 10th-grade student at Jackson S. Abrams High School.

It was a time in history when signs on bathrooms in her hometown of Bessemer, Ala., read “Whites Only,” and a time when “colored” and “negro” were everyday words, used by everyday people.

It was a time when a girl like McKinley could look out the window at night to see Ku Klux Klan members marching down the street.

“I lived through that era,” McKinley said.

Today, DeLois McKinley-Eldridge, 67, is a popular gospel radio host who can be heard Sunday mornings on WBOI 89.1 FM.

But back then, she was a teenager living in an era of great change, with a hero who preached equality and promised a better future: Martin Luther King Jr.

McKinley will speak Monday as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Huntington University.

Out the back door

Like parents of other black children, James and Inez McKinley often feared for the safety of their eight children.

As the civil rights movement began to take flight, James McKinley forbade his children to skip school and go to Birmingham as their classmates had.

“When my dad spoke, that settled it. Everything stopped in place when my dad said something,” McKinley said.

The first day McKinley’s classmates began the 14-mile trek to Birmingham, she and her sister stayed behind.

But when her classmates returned telling stories about the Freedom Riders bus that picked them up a few miles into their walk and the messages of hope being spread, McKinley decided it was time to join them.

The next day, a group of students from nearby Brighton High School passed her school.

“I’ll never forget it, they came through, and they were saying ‘2-4-6-8, all we want to do is integrate. We’re going to Birmingham,’ and so we were ready, and we went out the back door,” she said, referring to her classmates.

With each day they traveled to Birmingham, they began to see small changes.

“Of course what happened with us was we got involved and brought the national attention to Birmingham. We were sprayed with the fire hose, we were chased by dogs,” she said.

Some students were arrested and sent to jail, but hundreds of others were put in a makeshift jail in Birmingham’s Rickwood Field dugouts until their parents could come pick them up.

Eventually, McKinley ended up in the dugout.

“How my daddy knew that we were there, I don’t know. But he came and I was scared to go home with him. (Officials at the dugout) had to keep saying ‘McKinleys, McKinleys, come on out,’ ” she said.

The car ride home was the longest 14 miles of McKinley’s young life as she waited for her father’s lecture.

But he never said a word. He hummed and chewed his cigar as he drove.

Once home, he sent his children to bed. McKinley heard her mother in the kitchen, making dinner when she finally heard him speak.

“I heard him say, ‘I’m so proud of them,’ ” McKinley said. “And that was it. I said, ‘Oh, we’re going back tomorrow then.’ ”

Months passed and King continued his movement, inviting students to join in the fight against inequality.

On Aug. 28, 1963, McKinley traveled to the nation’s capital for the March on Washington.

She marched with thousands of students from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, singing and celebrating.

“We were way back from where Dr. King was, but we were in the place. And see, that’s the important thing,” McKinley said. “We got a chance to go. We got a chance to interact with people from all over the world.”

The next few years of her life were filled with protests against the Vietnam War, burning draft cards and watching as communities across the world began to arm themselves against racist groups.

On April 4, 1968, McKinley was on a bus to Montgomery for a concert with the Miles College choir when they heard King had been assassinated.

“We were just totally, totally out of it and it was like, ‘Why, why?’ and all of that,” she said. “We said anybody who was willing to give their life for a cause always would be our hero.”

‘Big and little’

Today, McKinley is a case manager for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

She helps make sure students at Study Elementary School have access to the clothing, food and education they need and fights for them – not unlike how she fought for her siblings and friends as a young woman.

Her career with the school district was somewhat unexpected. After moving to Fort Wayne in 1969, she joined Freedom Schools to boycott the district when segregated FWCS began busing black students out of the city.

The boycott continued for weeks as parents of black students removed their children from FWCS classrooms and held classes in churches and community buildings instead, McKinley said.

Eventually, the state school superintendent came to Fort Wayne and negotiated a settlement, and the black students returned to class.

Pastor Cedric Walker Sr., of Joshua’s Temple, met McKinley many years ago when she joined the congregation at Jerusalem Baptist, the church where his father preached when Walker was a child.

“Her passion is for the forward movement of the African-American community and she’s willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve that agenda,” Walker said.

Walker said McKinley’s desire to serve others and her dedication to her faith have made her a beloved, and well-respected, part of the community.

After working for the Freedom Schools, McKinley joined the Fort Wayne Urban League, eventually becoming executive director.

She later was an investigator before becoming executive director of the city’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission, keeping her focus on helping to prevent discrimination.

She also was an Allen County councilwoman.

“That’s been my life, always looking out for the little guy. Trying to pull them up so they can get the same equality as others,” she said. “It wasn’t ever just a black and white thing, it was a big and little thing, a have and have-not kind of thing.”

Former Fort Wayne Mayor Win Moses called McKinley a trailblazer in civil rights for Fort Wayne.

“She’s an active, bright, well-informed and very thoughtful lady,” the former mayor said. “It was clear that it was an early love for her to be involved, that she’d been taught responsibility and that her passion for civil rights was practically a genetic trait.”

Even 50 years later, McKinley’s memories of growing up in Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement are never far from her mind.

“And if you would ask me to go do it today, I’d probably be hesitant because I couldn’t run as fast, you know, I couldn’t do those things that I did,” McKinley said. “But the good thing about that is we had the opportunity.

“We weren’t thinking about making a difference, making history, anybody writing anything.

“We were just going. We were kids excited to go and do something.”