When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Lillian August was a teen attending St. Charles Parish’s G.W. Carver High School in Hahnville.
August did not experience race riots in Hahnville, but she knew life was different for African Americans.
“You didn’t have all the rights that the whites did. As the years progressed, it got a little better,” she said. “We still had a long, long ways to go, but we’ve overcome all of that.”
It’s why August has remained devoted to King’s legacy.
Even though she attended the parish’s racially segregated high school on Gum Street in Hahnville, she considered it a good place for learning because of its excellent teachers and everyone’s devotion to doing well regardless of unrest.
“We did have very educated teachers,” August said. “If you failed, it was because of you, not because of the teachers. There weren’t too many people who didn’t graduate from Carver.”
She also recalled their African-American principal Helen Smith, and African-American superintendent, Smith’s husband, Raymond Smith.
“Back then, it didn’t bother us at all,” August said. “We got our education. We might not have had the best books, but we had the best teachers.”
Serving the parish’s African-American high school students on the west bank, the school was opened in 1952. When the school closed, they were moved to Hahnville High School. August’s sister was one of the first African-American students to attend HHS in the early 1960s without incident.
A reason could have been that heir parents were there alongside her.
However, she recalled not being able to sit in the front seats of a bus that passed on River Road. Again, though, as time progressed, August said a time came when they could sit anywhere they wanted.
“I felt like I was the queen at the time,” August said. “It made my day.”
But she also certainly appreciated “all the wonderful works he did” and wanted to follow in his steps.
By the 1980s, a group came together to organize an MLK march in the parish. August said they also started holding fundraisers, as well as held a banquet, to raise funds for two scholarships – one each for HHS and Destrehan High School. It started at $500 each and eventually grew to $1,500 per student.
Students are required to submit an essay about MLK to qualify for the scholarship with first-place winners qualifying for a scholarship. They read them to the audience at the MLK rally. Recipients are chosen based on family income, essay and grades.
August herself has risen to the ranks of honoring MLK in the parish.
As president of the parish’s Martin Luther King Commemorative Organization, she remains dedicated to those works. The group has organized the MLK march and rally for nearly 28 years.
One of their biggest challenges, August said is trying to make MLK Day a legal holiday in the parish, which is a push she maintains continues today.
“Another reason for the march is to ensure it remains a holiday,” she added.
What concerns August more is today’s declining participation in MLK Day. With past attendances ranging up to 400 people, this year’s march drew barely 175 people.
“The parents don’t bring the children in the observance and half of the teachers there aren’t from here,” she said. It’s a day for everyone.”
“I know we’re doing something positive,” August said. “It worries me, but you can’t make them come. We try to encourage the children to remember him … to stop all the violence … stop all the killing.”