Columbia woman reflects on MLK assassination, student-teaching during segregation

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - On April 4, 1968, Mary Kennerly got dressed for her job as a student-teacher at Crane Creek Elementary and headed into school. It wouldn't be until she returned home that night she would learn of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"There was no way to get news while you were at work at that time," she said. "There wasn't a T.V. or a radio in the building."

Kennerly was in her final semester as a student at Columbia College majoring in special education.

"My younger sister had down syndrome and she was 15 years younger than me so I took care of her a lot," she said. "There really wasn't any help for her in a school setting so I thought, I should go into special education."

The only two colleges near Columbia offering the degree were Columbia College and South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. At the time, Kennerly said SC State was all-black and Columbia College was all-white, so her decision was simple.

In January of her final semester, Kennerly said she found out that coming fall schools in Richland County would begin the integration process. Her professor asked her if she would be willing to student-teach in an all-black school to help take the first step toward that goal

"Several of my family members weren't thrilled with my decision," she said. "My grandmother was fearful something would happen to me and my uncle, who was working in another school was not onboard with integration and saw what I was doing as being supportive of it."

In late January Kennerly began teaching special education at Crane Creek Elementary, an all-black school. However, she said both students and her colleagues welcomed her with open arms.

"They were supportive of it, they wanted it to work," she said. "They were helpful to me and while I was the only white person in the building, they stood behind our mission and our collective goal."

Four weeks later, the Orangeburg Massacre took place and Kennerly said it was a tense time.

"I just remember so much violence and hate during that time period," she said. "People were being killed and I think that's what I remember most vividly, just the anger people had."

In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kennerly said upon returning to school, things didn't feel all that different.

"Nobody really spoke about it, to me anyway," she said. "I can't speak for everyone but some people may have been afraid to talk to me about it."

Kennerly said many white people at the time viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist and did not believe he was a good person.

"I remember most white people that I knew thinking he was violating the will of God which was that the races should be segregated," she said. "So for the white population at that time, there was not a great acceptance of his message."

After spending three months at Crane Creek Elementary, Kennerly graduated from Columbia College and began her professional teaching career. Looking back 50 years, she said her experience during the spring of 1968 sticks with her.

"It was a great experience for me and I also learned a lot about that culture that was different from mine and it was a life-changing experience for me," she said.

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