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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow DOCTOR RECALLS LONG AGO CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLE

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DOCTOR RECALLS LONG AGO CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLE

Dr. Keith Graham ().
Dr. Keith Graham ().

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

It's a long way from Enterprise, Miss., to Enterprise, Ore.

A doctor who made that journey addressed his daughter's fourth-grade class Monday in the Wallowa County town.

Hannah Graham, 10, introduced her father, Keith, who is a physician in La Grande.

One area of study for the class is the civil rights movement. Hannah's research of the topic brought about lively discussions at home. Graham began sharing stories that even his wife, Janet, had not heard.

"It's still painful to think about," Dr. Graham said. Bad feelings, upheaval and tension filled his hometown when he was Hannah's age.

Hard feelings boiled over about consolidation of schools, forced by the federal government, as a part of integration. Townspeople did not like that Washington, D.C., was telling them what to do.

Before desegregation, grades 1-12 were in the same building — and all the students were white, like Graham.

About one-third of the Mississippi town's population of 500 was black. After the white and black schools were desegregated, the black school became the junior high school.

In 1965, Graham was in the fifth grade when the first black students, a boy and a girl, became part of his class. Some of the 35 white students treated them badly, he said. "It wasn't a very happy time for anybody and was hardest of all for those first black kids." Graham said he admires their courage.

It took years for the black students to be accepted, he said. What helped a lot, Graham thought, was that people looked up to the blacks who became good athletes. Graham remembers the first football game when blacks were on the team. A couple of dozen Ku Klux Klansmen in white robes and hoods made an appearance. Their presence failed to stop the game, but the crowd became quiet. By then the Klan had a century-old history of violence against blacks, including murder; thus, people were intimidated by their presence.

In those years, many white people in Enterprise, Miss., did not like the Klan and its methods, Graham said. One day, Graham and his mother saw a notice on a telephone pole announcing a Klan meeting.

His mother looked around, to be sure no one was watching, then tore down the poster. "Don't you ever let anybody see you do that," she cautioned.

Graham's father, the town doctor, had an office with two waiting rooms and separate entrances for blacks and whites. The public facilities everyone now shares were segregated. A special area in public places was for blacks. They had separate drinking fountains and restrooms.

Blacks and whites did not generally mix, or talk to each other. The races had their own society and culture.

"It seemed normal," Graham said, "the way things were supposed to be."

Since then, Graham's attitude and that of many others has changed.

When Graham was in grade school, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading civil rights marches in Alabama. Graham remembers people calling him a troublemaker.

Now King's birthday is celebrated as a national holiday each January.

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