The first time a death struck her young life, it also touched the nation.
But it would be years before Lisa Young Alston understood the significance of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
She was 10 when “Uncle Martin” died.
“As a child, my experience was not Dr. King; my experience was Uncle Martin,” Alston said.
“Uncle Martin” was her father’s friend and co-worker. She remembers King best from swimming during family night at the local Y.
Alston is the middle daughter of Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a U.S. congressman, two-term mayor of Atlanta and considered a King lieutenant, one of his closest confidants.
She relocated to the Kansas City area last summer. She’ll be in Washington, D.C., this weekend for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Hers is an up-close view of the civil rights movement. It’s the perspective of a very loved and protected child who was carefully sheltered from the visceral racial hatreds of that era, while surrounded by many of its most significant participants.
Her playmates were children with last names of Abernathy, Lowery and King.
“Except for Uncle Martin’s death, I thought the civil rights movement was just a blast,” she said. “There were all kinds of people of all kinds of backgrounds coming through our house.”
Her father was at King’s side that horrible day at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. That’s another fact that Alston didn’t realize until later. She just knew Daddy was away again, out of town with work the day the television in their Atlanta home broadcast the news that her beloved Uncle Martin had been shot.
Her mother left immediately to be with “Aunt Coretta.” Alston and her sisters were taken to be with close friends. Later, she attended King’s funeral and remembers being passed over the crowd, handed person to person as mourners surged forward.
Alston didn’t attend the March on Washington in 1963. This weekend, she’ll attend the 50th anniversary events with her younger sister, Paula Young Shelton.
That sister, a first-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., drew out memories from Alston and their eldest sister, Andrea Young, to create a children’s book, “Child of the Civil Rights Movement.”
It’s written from the perspective of a child. Their home was often filled with out-of-town visitors and the core group who carefully crafted strategy for meetings with white business leaders, politicians, Jewish activists and all of the clergy who were part of the long, dedicated pursuit of desegregation and equal access in America.
Both Alston and her sister recall more the feeling of that era than actual events. It was marked by an energy and excitement, especially through church.
The family’s dining room table was always filled with new faces, and somehow there always seemed to be plenty of food to go around, which they helped serve.Immersed but shielded
The wisdom goes that children have to be taught to hate. So the opposite is also true.
Children can be taught to love and to withstand hate.
The first time that Shelton was called the N-word, she was about 8 years old. Her public school was being integrated, and a new student had chosen to lash out at her.
She ran home crying to her father, seeking sympathy.
He calmly told her, “That poor boy, he must not like himself very much.”
The comment modeled what the Young children were always told: Racism is a sickness based on ignorance, and it is their job to help people get over the illness.
Another family mantra: What other people think of you isn’t so much a reflection of you as it is their own self-hatred.
Both daughters credit their mother, a teacher, with reinforcing these lessons and protecting them from experiencing racial discrimination. Jean Young died in 1994.
“We didn’t go to movies so we didn’t have to sit in the balcony,” Shelton said. “We didn’t ride the bus, and we didn’t go into places that wouldn’t serve us or wouldn’t let us try on shoes. My mother would not subject us to that.”
Their parents’ careful consideration is also why some of the most historic moments in the civil rights movement are somewhat hazy.
Both remember the pouring rain of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington and the tent structures of Resurrection City.
They were allowed to participate only during a portion of the third march from Selma to Montgomery. It was after Bloody Sunday. FBI agents, federal marshals and National Guard troops were at the ready to keep everyone safe.
A photo from that day is among Alston’s most cherished possessions. It was taken during a rest stop and shows Andrew Young beside King. Lisa is at their feet.
Alston was an adult before she fully grasped the dangers her father had faced. She watched a documentary showing her father being beaten during a Florida demonstration.
“It was as if I was watching it live,” she said.
She’s still finding out new information, details from his involvement in the movement, through the videos that the eldest sister is helping produce as executive director of the Andrew J. Young Foundation.‘Much is expected’
“I decided a long time ago that my role was much more local and smaller than my father’s,” Alston said.
But she learned well the family admonishment that “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
She’s been married to Douglas Alston for 26 years. When he took a new job as director of technology, strategy and architecture with Sprint, they chose a home in Leawood, wishing to avoid the long commutes they’d endured in Atlanta. Their two children, Lena and Kemet, are both enrolled in historically black universities, Howard and Claflin.
Slowly, this woman whose family is so ingrained into the history of Atlanta and the civil rights movement is finding a place in Kansas City’s community.
She terms the move her midlife adventure.
Finding a church made all the difference.
Attending Swope Parkway United Christian Church, Alston began noticing a group of teenage girls arriving to services toting children. She found out they were from a nearby group home for homeless and abused teenagers.
Alston is now on the board of the Bridge Home for Children.
Georgia Buchanan, widow of former Kansas City Chief Buck Buchanan, was her first friend here and has proven invaluable for meeting others.
In July, Alston read her sister’s book to children at a Freedom School, a summer literacy program.
When the couple settled into their home last summer, the local news was of Google Fiber and the stark divide between people with ready access to the Internet and those without.
Educated as an electrical engineer (she used to work for IBM), Alston began attending 1 Million Cups meetings at the Kauffman Foundation. She volunteers now with Connecting for Good, helping people learn how to utilize the Internet.
“It pulled at my heart,” she said. “Literacy is one thing and without digital literacy, people are cut off from the world.”
Obviously, her personal experiences are several degrees closer than what most can imagine to some of the nation’s most seminal events. But otherwise, Alston’s life fits a course to which many can relate.
She’s the generation between those who fought the great civil rights battles, and everyone who has benefited since.