Campus admissions director sees progress in race relations

When Kenny Macklin was in third grade in 1956, he and his mother left their East Orange, N.J., home to visit the place where his mother grew up in rural Virginia.

At a five-and-ten luncheonette, after they sat at a table to eat, a black employee, instructed by a white supervisor who stood by watching, told his mother, “I’m sorry Miss, colored people not allowed to eat here,” and the employee pointed them to a stand-up counter in the corner.

His mother moved to obey, saying, “Come on, Butch, [his childhood nickname], let’s go.”

Before he complied, Kenny swept the salt, ketchup and mustard from the table to the floor. When they reached the counter, his mother told him, “I’m going to have some trouble out of you.”

Macklin is 64 now, an employee of Penn State Altoona since 1991, starting as men’s basketball coach. He is currently assistant director of admissions.

Among his responsibilities: recruiting minority students and counseling students on life issues.

He grew up at a time when the country was in ferment over civil rights. He was born in Newark, N.J., scene of one of the worst race riots in the nation’s history, and he went to college in the deep South, the main battleground for civil rights.

He is an admirer of Martin Luther King, whose civil rights legacy and philosophy we celebrate today. But early on, he subscribed to a philosophy that competed with King’s.

Many times, when Kenny was in the middle grades in school, he and his friends encountered Italian kids at the Boylan Street municipal pool in an Italian neighborhood in Newark, a 10-minute walk from home.

The Italians always fled the pool when the blacks went in, making a show of it, posturing, calling them derogatory names.

“I’ll kick your ass,” they would say. “Go back to where you belong.”

The Italians usually outnumbered the blacks, so the blacks avoided fighting, when they could. But it wasn’t always possible.

“Our stance was, if you put your hands on us, then we’ll have to go [fight],” Macklin said.

Once, two or three Italians attacked him. He and his friends tried not to be the only ones to get hurt.

“The times it really scared me was when they had knives,” Macklin said. “Many times you would find yourself running away to live another day.”

When Macklin was a young man, the militant philosophy of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory appealed to him.

Their ideas “talked the most to my soul,” he said.

But the militants’ threat of violence and call to revolution scared some black people, Macklin said.

Their cause always seemed destined to defeat, because the white-dominated government had far more resources than the militants could ever muster.

Moreover, when Macklin eventually thought beyond their rhetoric, he realized he didn’t want to commit murder.

The riots too were “scary.”

“More people were attuned to loving your brother than to picking up a gun,” he said.

The rise of blacks in American society – so that one of their own has become president – has especially apparent in sports.

But when Macklin was a sophomore at Florida State in the mid-1970s, he attended his first Florida State-Florida football game with friends from the basketball team. They were the only blacks in the rooting section. At some point during the first half, one of Macklin’s teammates discovered that the fans behind him had burned holes in his shirt with cigarettes.

Macklin calmed the teammate and prevented a fight. At halftime, they went to the restroom, and there, Macklin found that they’d burned holes in his shirt too. So when they returned to their seats, they “slapped” the offending fans around a little.

“They were too meek to make it a brawl,” he said.

One year at Florida State, the basketball team – seven of whose 12 members were black – refused to rise during the pre-game rendition of “Dixie,” the Confederate anthem.

The fans hooted the N word and hollered demeaning epithets.

At halftime, as the Florida State players went through a passage towards the locker room, fans from above hooted and hollered some more, showering them with soda and pelting them with ice, popcorn, hot dogs and half-eaten buns.

The Georgia Tech players in front of them turned and added insults, and a fight broke out. Security officers broke up the fight, but in the second half, Florida State punished Georgia Tech, extending a rout that had begun in the first half by refusing to remove the starters.

“We kicked butt,” Macklin said.

Another time at Florida State, Macklin was strolling with teammates in downtown Knoxville after watching a movie during a road trip for a game with Tennessee, when a white man came towards them brandishing a handgun, shouting the N word and accusing them of taking sandwiches from his truck.

Befuddled, they shouted, “What the [bleep]?” The man pointed his gun at Macklin from about 15 feet and fired. Macklin felt the bullet pass close by his head. They ran away. They didn’t report the incident to police, because they had no confidence it would do any good.

Police at the time weren’t “user friendly,” Macklin said.

King’s message ultimately overcame that of the militants.

His message resonated with black people – especially older ones – because church was the strongest institution in the black community, Macklin said. King was a churchman.

“Golden rule stuff,” Macklin said. “Stuff we grew up with.”

King’s message reached “a lot of ears,” all over the country and eventually all over the world.

When the nation saw passive marchers “hosed” and saw sheriffs deputies sic dogs on them, even white people grew enraged.

When they saw the open racism of the south exposed, that racism began to die in the “light of day,” in the way all negativity and abuse tends to die in the light of day, Macklin said.

King’s message “was pleasing to the ear,” he said.

It resonated with Macklin, eventually.

“He was speaking to me, too,” Macklin said.

“I think [King] would be proud of the situation today,” said Don Witherspoon, president of the Blair County NAACP.

There are more black doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and a black president.

The militant philosophy has died, he believes.

He’s happy about that.

There was no “watershed moment” when Macklin began to believe King had it right. But it began after he stopped being “young, fresh and dumb,” and after he left behind the aggressiveness he cultivated as a “jock.”

Mainly, it came from revisiting King’s “I have a dream” speech, he said.

The speech includes the passages: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” and “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

King also says:

“I have a dream that one daylittle black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” King said.

“Playing together, living together, loving together,” Macklin said. “Having babies together.”

Militancy is “marvelous,” but it “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people,” King says.

“[King] had it right,” Macklin said.

It was right because it was practical, he said, and because it was practical, it allowed for growth, he said.

He had grown by the time he came to live in Altoona, where he encountered store employees who followed him around on the presumption he was likely to steal.

“Profiling,” he said.

He kept his response within the bounds of civility, “just kind of looking” at his shadowers to convey that “Hey man, you got the wrong one.” He wasn’t being threatened, he realized.

The appreciation of King came with maturity, he said.

“It sticks and it stays,” he said. “Now we’re like – living it.”

One evening at Florida State, he was walking down the street with friends discussing injustices they routinely experienced or observed when they decided spontaneously to take over a campus building.

They entered the sociology building, chained and locked the doors, stayed there all night, worked up a list of demands and in the morning, refused to let university employees inside.

The college president, Pennsylvania native J. Stanley Marshall, negotiated and made concessions.

“He listened to us,” Macklin said.

The sit-in resulted in the designation of a house for a black-student union and reforms connected with the cheerleading squad, which included a token black student whom the others ostracized. Even the locked-out employees turned around and went home, declining to make “a whole lot of to-do.”

The students made concessions too.

“There was some loud talking at times,” he said. But no one got hurt.

Macklin has changed, but he hasn’t forgotten.

He’s comfortable in his own skin, but “not a day goes by that I don’t see myself as a black man” – a thought triggered by some internal or external stimulus. It can be as simple as the way someone looks at him, he said.

That frequent awareness of his own racial identity contrasts with the lack of awareness of white people, he believes.

“Most white men don’t see themselves as white men,” he said.

He doesn’t regret his own racial awareness in himself, because it has made him what he is, he said.

But for many younger people, it’s different now, and better, he feels.

There are black and white students at Penn State Altoona living with each other who think that’s nothing special, he said.

“You bring up the topic of racism with them, and they look at you like the idea is crazy,” he said.

Those are generally students from schools with diverse student populations, he said.

They hardly notice the color of each others’ skin, he said.

His granddaughter “doesn’t have a clue” about racism, he said.

The indifference to color is the fulfillment of King’s “dream.”