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May 13, 2008

Breaking Barriers

As a teenager, Rhonda Joy McClean and three other Black students integrated a North Carolina school in 1965 and encountered extreme racism. Today, the associate general counsel recounts her courageous story of hope and triumph. In 1965 the sign posted at the entry to my Smithfield, North Carolina, hometown summed up that place: "Welcome to Johnston County. Help Fight Communism and Intergration." The misspelling of that word integration said a lot about the segregationists who created the sign and drove its message into the ground.

Most Black people in Smithfield lived on the proverbial other side of the railroad track, and we were encouraged to stay there. Fear was an undercurrent in almost every interaction between Blacks and Whites in that small town. But because my schoolteacher parents were outsiders—from Chicago and Buffalo, New York—they did not drum into our heads the idea that we should be afraid. Of course, my younger brother and I were not stupid. In the South you could go from safety to danger in seconds, just by crossing the street—like Emmett Till did. source

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