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King Program Features Stimulating Conversation
By Rich McManus
Photos By Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
Masur Auditorium was transformed into a family living room Jan. 15 as NIH observed the 75th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., with an intimate conversation between civil rights movement legends Dr. Dorothy Height and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), both of whom knew and worked with Dr. King. Moderating the discussion in the manner of Brian Lamb conducting Booknotes interviews on C-SPAN was NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox, who elicited moving testimony from the special guests, both of whom have published memoirs.
"I grew up on a farm 50 miles from Montgomery, Alabama," Lewis recalled, "so I had a taste of segregation and discrimination. I didn't like it. I didn't like what I tasted. I asked my parents, 'Why?' and they told me, 'That's the way it is don't get in trouble.'
"I hated racial segregation and discrimination," he continued, noting that when he first applied for a library card in 1956, at age 16, he was denied. But when he went back to that same library in 1998 to sign copies of his newly published book, he was welcomed.
Lewis, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with King in his role as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said, "I would still be on the farm raising chickens if it weren't for Dr. King. He freed me. He liberated me. He taught me how to stand up to segregation."
Height, now 91, who was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years and still serves as president emerita, recounted an upbringing in a relatively tolerant Pennsylvania steel mill town. It was there that she learned, through events such as an Elks Club-sponsored debate on the U.S. Constitution, what America promised its citizens and what it could be, ideally.
"I think my life and that of blacks in America has been characterized by rising expectations, and rising frustrations," she said. Commemorations such as this, she noted, only slowly erode a sense of indignation at how long it is taking for justice to arrive for all people in America.
She offered a fascinating footnote to the story of King's famous March on Washington, culminating in the "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: "One thing that we were never able to do that day was convince the leadership that there should have been a woman speaker on the platform."
Quipped Lewis, "We were male chauvinists," to which Height replied without missing a beat, "Now I feel better."
Height said she had wanted a woman on the dais to speak for women, not for any particular organization. "Mahalia Jackson was the only female voice you heard that day, when she sang the National Anthem." The following day, at a post-march meeting, organizers resolved "never again to lack a woman's voice," Height said.
Lewis was only 23 on that hot summer day, he recalled. "I had heard Martin Luther King speak many times. We had been in meetings on [Capitol] Hill earlier in the day, and we didn't expect such a huge crowd when we came out. We had to walk you couldn't drive. A sea of humanity just pushed us toward the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King was so moved. He just went into his heart and soul and said 'This is it.' He had an executive session with himself, and decided to let himself be used by God Almighty. He transformed those marble steps into a pulpit."
Lewis returned to the site of the famous speech on the 40th anniversary of its delivery last August. "It was too much I was overcome by it," he said. A plaque on the site reading, "I have a dream..." will be there as a memorial "for generations yet unborn," Lewis predicted.
Maddox asked the two heroes of the civil rights movement to share their dreams for America. "Let America be America," said Height, quoting a famous Langston Hughes poem. "We have all these things that we stand for why not start living up to them?...If we go on with this 'eye for an eye' business, everyone will be blind." She remembered the initial exhilaration of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that abolished the doctrine of separate but equal, but laments continued efforts to circumvent its intent. "I don't want to see just law and order," she said, "but also equality and justice."
Said Lewis, "I want to see an America that lays down its tools and instruments of violence here and around the world," and the audience erupted in applause. "I want an America where we all live like a family. We're all one family, and we live in the world house, not just the American house." Quoting King, he added, "We must all learn to live together, or we'll perish separately."
Maddox got each of them to address the roots of their own activism.
"It's what I was doing at 19 that made a difference in my life," said Height. She had protested injustice even earlier than that, at age 12 outside a YMCA pool. "Being active in committees and having faith in my purpose in life got me involved in the civil rights movement," she added. "When you see something that is not right, does your blood boil or do you look the other way? You have to learn how to use yourself in ways that can be positive." A combination of caring about what was happening and seeing what she could do for others motivated Height. She also said that inspiring adults served as role models. "I met Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune on the same day," she remembered. "I will never forget the benefits of dealing with caring adults we need much more of this approach today."
Lewis recalled that he was heavily influenced by both philosophy and King in the late fifties and early sixties. "I didn't see myself so much as a leader...We used to call ourselves a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters, a big family...We had to learn to lay our differences aside sometimes. It was more important that we spoke with one great, mighty voice. In those days, we didn't have any web site. We had no email. We had no fax. But we had ideas, we believed in something, and we laid our bodies on the line." The audience clapped in assent.
Earlier in their remarks, both guests recounted the importance of friends in high places. Height said she often thinks "it was the hand of God" that enabled civil rights activists to remain nonviolent after the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963; that event actually led to unanticipated unity among all ages in the movement, she related. She remembered the words of a 72-year-old marcher, who when offered the mercy of a car ride replied, "My feets may be tired, but my soul is rested."
Lewis recounted the importance of civil rights leaders' friendship with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, who was then attorney general: "Without them, we wouldn't have survived." He remembered a 1961 Freedom Ride that turned ugly when a mob surrounded the marchers in the Montgomery church led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. "We all went down to the basement, and Dr. King called the Kennedy brothers, who got the National Guard to come out and protect us. If it hadn't been for that act, I might not be here today."
Testifying to King's international influence, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told the crowd that his father had always hailed King, JFK and Gandhi as heroic role models. "In no small measure, my position [as NIH director] is due to [King]," said Zerhouni in an emotional recollection. "I want to formally commit us to Dr. King's vision of the world...The diversity of those who serve must parallel the diversity of those who are served. My father always told me that you are not defined by what you receive from others, but by what you give to others. That was Dr. King's challenge, too: 'What are you doing for others?'"
The ceremony also included musical selections from the NIH Preschool children and from guest musicians Wydell Croom (piano) and Bryan Mills (saxophone), who performed a medley of "Precious Lord" and "Amazing Grace." Also, recent retiree Levon Parker of NINDS returned to bestow upon Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, senior advisor to the NIH director, a crystal obelisk "in appreciation for your courageous leadership in promoting true equal opportunity at NIH."
In closing remarks, NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz observed that the audience "was truly mesmerized" by the conversation between Maddox, Height and Lewis. "I think we should have part two next year."
The complete event may be viewed at http://videocast.nih.gov.
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