ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- A Fairfield, Iowa, native who fought on the front lines during the civil rights movement shared her experiences during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance Jan. 16 in Heritage Hall here. The First Army Equal Opportunity Office hosted the event.
In his opening remarks, First Army Deputy Commanding General for Support, Maj. Gen. Chris Gentry, noted that Patti Miller -- a white woman from the Midwest -- could have stayed safely on the sidelines.
"Patti's story is a remarkable journey of selfless service," Gentry said. "Patti could have gone about her studies at Drake University and focused on things in her backyard. But during the summer of 1964, she chose a different path. She spent that summer in Mississippi: ground zero for civil rights."
The peril of involvement was significant. During Miller's first week in Mississippi, the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers were discovered. Dangers were abundant in the forms of firehoses, rocks and police dogs. And, though not deadly, protestors suffered painful humiliations, such as having food and drink dumped on them at lunch counters.
Undeterred, Miller and the other civil rights workers persevered. She recounted some of the highlights of the movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and the one Miller participated in, the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
"I worked in the town where James Chaney, one of the slain civil rights workers, was from," she recalled. "For his funeral, we met silently in four different places in town, and we walked without a word. So many thoughts went through my mind, but we were so committed to what we were doing."
Miller later had the chance to work with Dr. King in Chicago, where she helped organize students in support of fair housing practices.
"We were testing segregated housing, which is still quite a problem in Chicago," Miller said. "On one of the marches in Gage Park, people started throwing rocks and bottles at us. Dr. King was hit by a rock. He just stayed on his knees with his eyes closed, and one can only begin to imagine the thoughts that were going through his head."
Also in Chicago, Miller taught in the largest all-black high school on the city's west side. She was working there when King was assassinated. But it is not possible to kill an idea, Miller said, and added it is vital to continue the fight and recall the sacrifices of those who came before.
"It's so important that we remember history," Miller said, "because if we don't, we're doomed to repeat it."