King and I
Dorothy Stevens Enomoto credits her grandmother and childhood pal Martin Luther King Jr. for shaping her amazing life
During her 1930s childhood, Dorothy Stevens Enomoto and her friends would sneak out to go play by the lake in Atlanta, Ga. They kept it secret because they attended segregated schools and lived in segregated neighborhoods in the Jim Crow South, where everything was “separate and unequal,” where black people were forced to the back of the bus, and a black man could be lynched for talking to a white woman. As an African-American, Enomoto was not welcome in the homes of her white friends.
One day out by the lake, her friend Bud, a white boy, said his father told him he “shouldn’t play with niggers.” Enomoto said, “Fine, then don’t,” not realizing that white adults in the South considered her one.
“My grandmother always said color is only skin deep, that it didn’t matter,” said Enomoto, who credits the woman with having the greatest influence on her life.
Enomoto’s grandmother was born into slavery and didn’t know how to read or write until her granddaughter taught her. But the old woman knew about a lot of things, including how to treat others with respect, and she taught Enomoto all about that until she passed away at the age of 120.
Through the years, Enomoto took that lesson with her, forming friendships with people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds. She married a Japanese-American man, named Jerry Enomoto, 28 years ago, and today has a group of multi-ethnic girlfriends she refers to as her “adopted sisters.”
Along with her grandmother, there was another person who made a major impact on Enomoto’s life: a boy she met as a child by the name of Martin Luther King Jr.
Last Saturday, Enomoto and about 1,000 others paid tribute to King at the ninth annual MLK Jr. Celebration Dinner, held at the Sacramento Convention Center. The event, which honors the legacy of a national civil-rights hero, is co-chaired by Enomoto, who happens to be a modern civil-rights mover and shaker in her own right.
“You have done so much by example and endeavor,” said keynote speaker Regina Louise, thanking the Enomotos for making “impressive strides in creating one of the most plural, most diverse societies on earth.”
“This woman has come a long way … for her to come this distance has taken such a great perseverance,” said News10 newscaster Dana Howard, who has hosted the event since its start.
Enomoto was born in Atlanta into a working-class family—her father a laborer and mother a stay-at-home mom who cared for the couple’s six children—and King was born into a relatively affluent family, his father a Baptist minister, which King would become many years later in Montgomery, Ala.
Even in their youth, the two friends experienced the harsh injustice of racial discrimination.
“It was a fact of life that we accepted. But it instilled a principle in us that we’re going to make things different,” Enomoto said.
She called King a “natural-born leader,” recalling one time in particular when he showed his compassionate and guiding nature. They had a classmate who stuttered and a cruel teacher who made the child go to her desk where she’d ridicule him in front of everyone. Once, the child struggled to make an oral presentation to the class. King went up and put his arm around the young boy, delivering the rest of the speech for him.
After Enomoto and King shared valedictorian honors at Booker T. Washington Senior High School, the young woman enrolled in Clark College in Atlanta at the prodding of her parents who encouraged their children to pursue higher education. Several decades later, she received an honorary doctorate degree from CSUS.
In the 1950s, Enomoto and King’s journeys parted ways, as the woman did as her grandmother used to say and “threw away her wishbone and grew a backbone,” gathering up her three daughters and heading out west to California to escape an abusive marriage. She settled in Los Angeles, finding waitress jobs and domestic work to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, King emerged as a leader in the American civil-rights movement. In 1955, he organized the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. The boycott ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw racial segregation on public transportation. In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize black churches to conduct nonviolent resistance and acts of civil disobedience.
King’s efforts cumulated in 1963 with the march on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and white society heard a massive rallying cry advocating equality and justice. Enomoto had wanted to attend the march, but King advised her to focus on making a living for her family in California, and “he’d do the work in Washington.”
So she stayed put and pushed ahead, taking an examination for the California Department of Corrections, earning the highest score and beginning her career.
Over the years, Enomoto kept in touch with King and other friends involved in the civil-rights arena, hearing first-hand of progress and setbacks. Back in 1961, Freedom Riders put desegregation laws to the test. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed, and the next year, the Voting Rights Act followed suit. Television footage of “Bloody Sunday” exposed police brutality against protesters for all to see. King expanded his political vision, expressing doubts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He spoke about being to the mountaintop and seeing the promised land, saying someday we’d all get there. With or without him.
On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., James Earl Ray assassinated King, and the world lost a true leader, and Enomoto lost a dear friend.
But she carried on, moving up through the ranks of the Department of Corrections, advocating increased opportunities for female correctional officers in the prison system. She became the first African-American woman to manage a department unit—the Women’s Civil Addict Unit at the California Rehabilitation Center—and the first African-American woman to hold the position of deputy director of the department in the mid-1970s.
It was at a department conference that she met Jerry. Some of the rougher male correctional officers bragged about mistreating prisoners, until Jerry rose up and said, as his wife recalled, “If you treat people with dignity and respect, they will return the deed. Treat them like human beings and they will act that way.”
His words touched her heart. The two struck up a friendship, discovering their shared views and values. Soon, they married. And talk about a power couple.
Jerry worked for 45 years in law enforcement and criminal justice, 28 of those with the Department of Corrections. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him a U.S. marshal, making him the first Asian-Pacific American to receive this appointment. He fought for Japanese-American rights, serving as the national chairman in efforts that led to the passage of the civil liberties bill of 1987, which paid reparations to those of Japanese ancestry who had been displaced into internment camps during World War II.
Since retirement, Enomoto has continued her activism, serving on the Sacramento County Affirmative Action Committee, the executive committee of the local NAACP, the Sacramento City and County Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission and too many more to list. She and her husband also served on the U.S. Attorney General’s Greater Sacramento Area Hate Crimes Task Force, because when it comes to race relations in the United States, plenty of work remains to be done.
“We still haven’t reached a place where it’s equal,” Enomoto said. “But it sure is better than it was.”
Despite all the awards that cover the walls inside her Natomas home and all the recognition she has received for her community activism, Enomoto regards her greatest achievement to be her three grandsons, “because they’ve turned out so well.”
After all, it’s always been about people for Enomoto, about togetherness and treating one another respectfully, just as her grandmother and her friend Martin Luther King Jr. taught her to do.
“We have to travel that road and each person has to take some responsibility,” she said. “Each person in their own way can reach out to someone else.”