In the week leading up to Black History Month in February, students at Plaza Elementary School in Baldwin had the chance to interview a man who had a close-up view of one the country’s great civil rights leaders at work — the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King.
Harry Antoine, 60, a retired New York City police detective and the grandfather of a Plaza Elementary student, was assigned in 2004 to the NYPD’s Dignitary Protection Unit that provided security for Scott King while she was at work in New York City.
Scott King was there to attend a series of events. Antonine could not recall which ones, he said, because he was so focused on protecting her that he didn’t pay much attention to the nature of the events themselves.
The student reporters with Team ORCHID, the group of Plaza student journalists, were assigned to interview Antoine during his Jan. 23 visit and report on his story. The students appeared eager to speak with him and hear his stories about Scott King — and what he learned from her.
The Dignitary Protection Unit was assigned to provide transportation and protection for Scott King. At the time, she was suffering from leg pain, and asked to sit in the front of the car when she was driven around the city, rather than in the back, as is normal practice. This gave Antoine, who was driving, an opportunity to speak with her about her life. He said he was immediately struck by her kind nature.
Scott King worked side by side with MLK as he became the central leader of the civil rights movement, eventually establishing a career as an activist in her own right. After her husband was assassinated in April 1968, Scott King founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and later lobbied for his birthday to recognized as a federal holiday. She died of complications from ovarian cancer in 2006, at
Looking back, Antoine said he was grateful to have met Scott King while she was alive and to share with the students what a profound effect she had on him. “I never thought that I would meet her in person,” he said. “I’d seen her on TV, but to meet her in person, I was honored.”
Antoine, who lives in Hempstead, said his 8-year-old granddaughter Taylor Antoine, a Plaza student, had told him about all that she was learning about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in school, and when he told her the story about how he served on her security detail in New York, “her eyes lit up.”
Taylor said she was surprised to learn that her grandfather had met Scott King, and she was excited when he agreed to speak with her class.
“I thought it was important to bring him to the school so more people can know about the things Mrs. King did, and what she stands for, and how she was special to people,” Taylor said.
At the end of Antoine’s visit, students said they left with a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement — particularly of one key leader who helped to shape it.
“As a school, we felt very honored to have someone be able to connect our kids to an important part of our history, especially during a time that’s so closely related to Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month,” said Mark Gray, the Plaza Elementary School principal.
“I think we’re very lucky to have this story come to us from one of our own third-graders,” he continued, “and I think that it emphasizes the importance and need to continue to talk about Martin Luther King and the legacy he left behind.”