Ken Sprague positioned himself about midway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, oblivious not only to the privileges his white skin afforded him, but to the importance and urgency of the historic gathering.
He considered the March on Washington an “event” and he’d made the 516-mile drive from his home in Cincinnati only because his black track buddies invited him.
“Had they said, ‘Let’s go to Woodstock,’ I would’ve gone along,” Sprague said recently.
It was the first time Sprague had traveled more than 100 miles from home. Just 17, he had no social, political or even moral agenda. He didn’t know what Jim Crow meant.
But in the decades since he stood with the 250,000 other Americans who’d come to demand voting rights and equal opportunity for blacks, to appeal for an end to racial segregation and discrimination, the 68-year-old retired educator has thought of little else. The march changed his life.
He sits in his Marietta living room, no longer a naive teen, but a father of three mixed-raced children. And he has spent much of his life straddling two worlds — one black, one white and often at odds.
Now, as the 50th anniversary of the march approaches, Sprague is looking forward to returning. He plans to commemorate the historic event by attending the 50th Anniversary March on Washington on Aug. 28. This time, though, he’s worried.
He feels the same dread for his nine grandchildren that black parents feel when their sons leave home, wondering whether they will return dead or alive, a fear underscored by the death of Trayvon Martin. He’s troubled by the high unemployment rate among African-Americans. He’s angered that only 20 percent of teachers in core academic subjects at Marietta High, where he once taught, are black, in a student body that is 48 percent black.
“Kids aspire to be what they see,” he said.
A change in perspective
As a kid growing up in an all-white, working-class community on the fringe of what is now called Over the Rhine, Sprague admits he couldn’t see beyond what was in front of him.
“I didn’t fully get the nuances and I didn’t have much of an awareness of race,” he said. “I enjoyed all the advantages of white society and wasn’t aware that others didn’t.”
For most of his life, Sprague’s relationship with African-Americans and other minorities was limited to sitting side-by-side in the right field bleachers for Cincinnati Reds baseball games and the lone black classmate he befriended in elementary school.
He attended an all-white middle school, but in 1962, when his white classmates decided to attend all-white Central High across town, Sprague chose the city’s predominately black Taft instead.
“Taft was an easier place to get to and the athletic teams were always so much better, and that appealed to me,” he said.
“Whites made up roughly 2 percent of the student body at Taft,” he recalled. “I was the only white athlete and was usually the only white at school events, dances, school plays.”
And it’s a pretty good bet Sprague was the only white kid from Mt. Auburn to pile into a car with four black athletes and drive overnight to the March on Washington.
The only thing he’d ever done in his entire life that might be considered the least bit politcal was run for and win the presidency of his middle school class.
But once he’d committed to going, he didn’t want to miss a thing.
“I remember being so worried about getting there in time,” he said.
It was close to 7 a.m. when they arrived, with time to spare. Other than feeling half- dead from the drive, Sprague was full of excitement. And he noticed he wasn’t the only white there.
“I remember sitting around the reflecting pool thinking how terrible the sound system was,” he said. “We were somewhere in the middle and I remember the applause growing from the front to the back, but I honestly can’t say I remember the speech, and I didn’t understand how this impacted the everyday individual as it obviously did.”
Sprague admitted he “was so aloof to the dynamics and devastating consequences of race” that he never noticed there were no blacks at Cincinnati’s all-white Coney Island swimming pool.
Then, riding a charter bus to a football game, an African-American girl caught his attention and things changed. Race, up until then a tinkling cymbal, was about to reach a crescendo in ways Sprague couldn’t imagine.
It began the moment the school’s white athletic director got wind of Sprague walking the girl home, holding her hand. He was summoned to his office.
“I thought it was probably another recruiting letter,” Sprague said.
Instead, the coach forbade him from seeing the girl again. When Sprague refused, he was suspended.
“It brought home personally the consequences of race,” he said.
In the interest of maintaining calm, his father remained silent. His mother was strident.
“You can’t be here and do that,” she told him.
That night Sprague traded his bed and the comforts of home for a park bench.
Even then, he said, “I wasn’t an activist. It was personal. It seemed wrong that I couldn’t have a black girlfriend, who was more a classmate than anything else.”
Melrose Thrower would become more. Just months after the march, she announced she was pregnant.
Sprague found a job and, because he was a minor, sued his parents for guardianship to clear the way for him to marry her.
In June 1964, they were wed in Cincinnati. Ken Jr. was born two months later.
Experiencing prejudice first-hand
Three years later, the Supreme Court would overturn state bans on interracial marriages, but it wouldn’t make a difference for Sprague. His life was forever changed. Whites called him racial slurs. Blacks were suspicious, but supportive and friendly, sometimes inviting him to church. For three years, his parents and siblings disowned him.
Meanwhile, he and Melrose would add a daughter, Julie, to their nest.
Sprague enrolled at the University of Cincinnati on a track scholarship while holding down a full-time job on the night shift at a local machine tool company.
Things were starting to look up. His parents welcomed him back into their lives. They doted on their grandchildren. Sprague’s boss selected him for a management training program, but later told him higher-ups wouldn’t allow it.
It was hard enough having to force Ken Jr. to lay his head down for “naps” every time they drove through a white neighborhood. Safety was always an issue. Now he was being told he didn’t qualify for management because he had an African-American wife.
“That very clearly said to me, when a lot of other things didn’t, how clearly race defines a person,” he said.
It was 1967, four years since the March on Washington. The disconnect between Sprague’s initial impression of how things were and how bad things really were had all but eroded.
But not enough to save his marriage. He and Melrose had grown apart. They divorced in 1969.
Looking back, Sprague said, he didn’t understand the problems African-Americans faced. Soon after the march, though, awareness slowly came to him and he realized it wasn’t just an event. It was the beginning of a movement.
“It only became iconic in my mind when I heard a recording of King’s ‘I Have a Dream speech’,” he said. “It really caused me to examine my entire construct surrounding race relations, and from then on I was sensitive to every nuance.”
Even so, Sprague said, he was still of the “mistaken belief” that all it took was hard work to succeed, that anyone who didn’t break through the barriers just wasn’t trying hard enough.
Fighting for the cause
By the time he moved to California in 1969, Sprague realized that was true only some of the time and for a select few, mostly whites.
From then on, he said, “I always looked over my shoulder, asking, is this fair?”
Was it fair, for instance, that women couldn’t join the original Gold’s Gym? Was it fair that his daughter couldn’t enroll in her school’s gifted class even though, according to her test score, she was qualified? Was it fair that the race of his wife defined where he could live? Was it fair that his son, daughter and grandson were stopped and checked for a valid license for no probable cause?
Sprague was starting to see clearly what he couldn’t see before, and his fight to set things right was only beginning.
In 1972, he met his current wife, Donna Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. In the mid-’80s the two of them moved to Eugene, Ore., to be close to Ken Jr., who was a scholarship athlete at the University of Oregon.
By then the couple, married in 1978, added another son, Chris, to their already blended family.
Sprague and Donna spent the next 12 years fulfilling what they saw as their social calling, educating disadvantaged and troubled youth; Donna as a migrant teacher and then a college administrator and Sprague as a teacher of math and science.
In 1988, they made their first foray into politics, becoming the chief organizers for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in Eugene.
In 1999, the couple followed Ken Jr. to Marietta, where he’d moved to raise his young family. Sprague spent the next 11 years teaching math at Marietta High school, a vocation he shares with his son. In 2003 he was named Marietta High School’s teacher of the year.
And he’s become an advocate for equal opportunities for African-American and Hispanic students, set on correcting inequities wherever he could. For a 50th-anniversary observance of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Sprague debated the Marietta City Schools superintendent on the educational inequities in the district in an NAACP-sponsored forum.
“I’m very sproud of Ken,” Wong said. “He truely wants to see progressive change and he fights for it.”
But so does she. Wong, who retired last year as director of multiculutral programs and services at Emory University, devoted her career to working and supporting students of color.
“Being an immigrant, I felt strongly about educating and supporting students of different backgrounds who had to adjust and learn to survive in the United States,” she said. “And my experience growing up as one of the few Asians in Hollywood, Calif., being treated as ‘other,’ not having teachers to relate to, made me sensitive to the obstacles that students of color face, whether it be language or social economic class.”
When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy, Sprague immediately contributed to his campaign fund and signed up to work on his behalf. He and Donna registered voters at Marietta High School football games, walked precincts, gathered data, made phone calls encouraging people to register to vote and come to the polls for their candidate.
“At first I was cautiously optimistic he would make a showing, but then slowly believed that he just might win,” he said. “I identified with him as a mix-raced child. I felt I knew what he’d been up against all his life and I knew what he’d be up against in this election, because I’d seen and heard it all raising my son.”
But there was another reason. Sprague was reminded that just 43 years earlier his parents, and Melrose’s parents, too, expressed the opinion that mixed-race kids didn’t have a chance in life. Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election publicly repudiated the mistaken assumption.
“I didn’t believe it then and I certainly don’t believe it now,” Sprague said. “The difference now is my own son has proven them wrong. Ken Jr. turned out to be a great guy, a good teacher and father.”
And so naturally when Obama won, Sprague and Donna traveled to Washington to see him sworn in.
“We were absolutely thrilled,” he said. “It felt personal in every sense. It was like validation of a life lived.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Gracie Bonds Staples first made Ken Sprague Sr.’s acquaintance when he wrote her a letter to comment on a story she had written. They met a couple of years later when Staples interviewed Ken’s son, Chris, for a back-to-school story. When Gracie and her colleagues began talking about the anniversary of the March on Washington, Gracie mentioned that she’d always been interested to know how whites who attended the march felt. She had a hunch Sprague might have been there, and she was right. Originally this week we had planned to run a story about Becky Dowling, a woman who has devoted her life to enriching the lives of disabled adults, but we thought Sprague’s story was so compelling, we wanted to publish it prior to the 50th anniversary of the March. Look for our story on Becky Dowling on Sept. 1.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples, 55, lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 27 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila and Asha, both recent college graduates.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
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Next week: Amanda Kyle Williams didn’t read her first book until she was 23. Now she’s a successful author.