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Woman Experienced Civil Rights Struggle Firsthand

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Sylvia James had already broken down racial barriers in Indiana. She was the first African-American service representative for the Illinois Bell Telephone Co.

She was also offered a position to be the first black teacher to teach white children in Indiana, after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision overturned the "separate but equal" clause in 1954.

Now a resident of Huntington, James has experienced her share of struggles and triumphs. "My whole life has been affected by civil rights," she said.

She grew up in Asheville, N.C., during segregation, and remembers that her father was always protecting his children. "He'd tell us not to take the bus, but to walk," she said.

King may have picked up on the James family mantra during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955. James' husband knew King — the two graduated from Morehouse College together in 1948.

"Everybody said [King] was a bright student," James said, although his passion for justice wasn't kindled until later.

James comes from a long line of educators. Her ancestors were free blacks in the South, working as house servants on plantations and later as teachers in the first black schools. One of her forebears purchased a slave so that she could set him free and marry him. "She willed him to her son when she died because she was afraid they'd sell him back into slavery," James said.

After helping to shatter the racial barrier in Indiana and Illinois, James spent many years teaching and administering at the Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Gary, Ind. One of her students was pop superstar Michael Jackson, who she remembers as an average student with "a great voice."

"They came and gave a concert at the school," James said. At that time, she was teaching Jackson's older brother, Marlon. "Everybody loved them. ... We knew they were something special."

Although her husband passed away 10 years ago, the couple raised two sons who have since given her six grandchildren.

She said the racial climate has cooled in America, but people have a long way to go before King's dream is realized. "You can't legislate love," she said. "You can't legislate compassion. ... In the end it's all about the Golden Rule."

What are your memories of the civil rights era? Please share them with us in the comment section below.

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