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CKSD employee reflects on the ultimate road trip

CKSD employee Cherry Rachal displays a couple of old recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches in her East Bremerton home. - Photo by Paul Balcerak
CKSD employee Cherry Rachal displays a couple of old recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches in her East Bremerton home.
— image credit: Photo by Paul Balcerak

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

Road trips have long been part of the fabric of American culture, but one Central Kitsap School District employee may be able to trump nearly every one ever made.

Cherry Rachal, an administrative assistant at Olympic High School and a 30-year veteran of the district, may not seem like the road-tripping type. But in the summer of 1963, she and a busload of members from the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) trekked across the country to see Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was the trip of a lifetime for many who attended and years in the making for Rachal, who began her role in the civil rights movement at an early age.

Rachal’s journey began in Oklahoma City at about the age of 10, when she started attending NAACP meetings after church every Sunday. Leaders of the group would organize protests and sit-ins where Rachal would demonstrate and, occasionally, get nicked for it.

“Oh, I probably got arrested about three or four times,” she said.

Of course, having embraced King’s message of nonviolent protest over the diametrically opposed Black Panther viewpoint, which was much more aggressive, it’s not like Rachal ever got in any serious trouble.

It wasn’t easy, though.

“My dad was in line (one time, at a grocery store in Oklahoma City) and this white man came up and he took my dad’s basket and just swung it out of line and said, ‘You niggers are supposed to be behind us,’ and I just freaked,” Rachal said. “Seriously, I could have been an Angela Davis.

“Seriously.”

But having grown up in a Christian home and attended NAACP meetings at church, Rachal’s beliefs got the better of her.

“To me, King was a reflection of Christ,” she said, again mentioning his refusal to engage in violence.

She also valued his appeal across races, creeds and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“King was for not just black people, but all people who were not treated with respect or equality,” she said.

When the announcement came in 1963 that King would speak in Washington, Rachal was giddy.

“I begged my parents, I said, ‘I wanna go,’” she said. Rachal was only 16 at the time of the speech. “Being the only child, they weren’t too keen on that, but I said, ‘I gotta go.’”

Rachal’s parents eventually relented. After all, it was hardly like asking to stay out late on a Saturday night.

When the time came to take the trip, Rachal’s NAACP colleagues were right in line with her and a bus trip was planned. The trip would take three days and would at times be uncomfortable.

“We had these brown paper bags ... and they were loaded up with fried chicken and bread and potato salad and sweet potato pie, you know, because we couldn’t stop anywhere at a restaurant along the way to eat because they wouldn’t serve us,” she recalled. “We ate on the bus, we stayed on the bus — we literally lived on the bus for three days.”

The trip paid off, however, as Rachal got the opportunity to see King speak, even if he was “just a dot” in the distance, as she described.

Rachal had a unique vantage point of the speech — she climbed up on Lincoln’s feet at the monument to get a better view of King’s speech. It was an experience that she still relives from time to time by listening to the speech on an old record she owns.

She often used that record as a teaching tool while teaching several language arts programs in CKSD during her time there.

Unfortunately, her dream of being a school principal was never realized. She looks back on it and considers that she may have been inhibited, at least initially, by lingering racist attitudes — “institutionalized racism,” as she calls it — but has reconciled with the fact that some things weren’t meant to be.

“What God has for me, it’s for me,” she said, succinctly.

In any case, she’s looking ahead these days — specifically to the 2008 presidential elections, which could well see the election of America’s first African American president.

Her love of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is palpable and she’s hopeful of the change he could bring to the country.

But she’s also mindful of the parallels some draw between him and King.

“I’m not calling him the next King ... (but) probably he is the fulfillment of King’s (dream),” she said.

At the same time, she’s not about to twist anyone’s arm to elect Obama. During a brief speech at Central Kitsap Junior High School last month, Rachal implored those in attendance — though most of them were ineligible to vote — to vote for the right candidate, not necessarily the most popular one.

If Obama does get elected, though, a possibility that gives Rachal considerable excitement, she may find herself thinking back to her protests and sit-ins on the streets of Oklahoma City and her trip to see King speak.

“To this day, when I hear that speech, I still get chills,” she said. “I came back thinking, as the kids would say it today, ‘I’m all that and 10 bags of chips!’”

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