NIH Employees Celebrate Life, Legacy of Martin Luther King
By Sharon Ricks
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
It was 11:39 a.m. The Masur Auditorium was crammed to capacity. Seventy-five students from Prince George's County's Largo High School stood like statues in the aisles. They were draped in blue and gray choir robes. A cue from the director launched their words into the air: "We give alleluia." They sang like Martin Luther King was backstage.
Then it was time to remember, and NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander offered a stirring, first-hand account of segregation in American society. The setting was Baltimore. The time was 1954, and the story of his family's reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education captured everyone's attention, everyone that is, except for the 3- and 4-year-olds from the NIH day care on the first couple of rows.
They were restless, they had to eat, and they had to use the bathroom. Finally, they took the stage, swaying back and forth. With a little music and lots of personality, they stole the show. But not for long, because Richard Jackson, an actor and HHS employee, was next in the spotlight.
The tall, heavyset African American sat behind black jail bars and brilliantly depicted King writing a letter from Birmingham jail. The Largo students were partially right: King was on stage, at least for the next 7 minutes, in the person of Jackson.
Then the lights came on, and NIDA's Richard C. Harrison walked on stage wearing the authentic ceremonial dress for the Osage tribe's I-Lon-Schka ceremony. Nine NIH'ers followed. Some wore their own ethnic clothing. On stage they spoke Ghanaian, Chinese, English, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Spanish and Hindi, to symbolize the universality of King's message. They led the audience in a litany.
The theme was, "Remember, Celebrate, and Act," and if the performances and remarks helped the audience to remember and celebrate, then NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein and former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums called them to act.
"We have made progress these last 100 years, but surely we have not progressed far enough," said Kirschstein. "We have come some distance since Dr. King began leading the civil rights movement, but we haven't gone nearly far enough. A diverse group took part in the civil rights movement. Their identities are important, and the struggle they initiated is still very much alive today."
Over 30 years ago at the request of Mrs. King, Kirschstein provided a staff member to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Commission. Bestowing an award for the first time in her new position as acting NIH director, Kirschstein presented that staff member O. H. Laster of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity with a plaque in appreciation for planning King programs at NIH for 15 years. Kirschstein noted that this King program is unique in that it's the first commemoration in 2000 and the best yet.
Then it was Dellums' turn:
"If I walked up to this podium and told you in this audience that war is being waged...on the continent of Africa that has killed over 11 million human beings, you would shudder in horror...If I said...that war has created over 10 million orphans, you'd be overwhelmed. If I said to you that life expectancy...as a result of that war has dropped over 20 years, I am convinced to an absolute moral certainty that a peace movement would emerge in this community...in this country...in this world, the likes of which we have never seen. But the statistics that I laid out to you are indeed true, yet there is no such movement. People in Africa at this very moment are quietly dying...in a war with a virus...and the world has stood by and allowed HIV/AIDS to kill millions of people on the continent of Africa."
Dellums, president of Healthcare International Management Co., explained his role: "You here at NIH know more about health than I'll ever know. I'm not an epidemiologist. I'm not an expert in AIDS. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist. I'm a big-mouthed political activist who sees my role as making the country and the world uncomfortable with the fact that millions of human beings are dying, and we have a responsibility to challenge it."
To address the problem, Dellums recommended a global strategy and made four suggestions: talk about it, get beyond denial, decide that we must act, and take a leap of faith and invest in the solution.
"I'm talking loudly now for symbolic reasons," Dellums yelled. "You can't whisper about billions of people dying, you can't whisper about millions of orphans, you have to talk loud about it." He added, "If Martin Luther King were here, he would say that it is immoral to stand by and allow millions of people to suffer and die as they are suffering. We have an obligation, on a moral level, to stand up."
Dellums said the world took a quantum step forward when the United Nations Security Council debated the issue of AIDS in Africa as a security issue the previous Monday. Debts should be forgiven for countries fighting the pandemic, he continued, and that money should be put back into solving the AIDS problem in Africa. Now that he's out of Congress, Dellums said, this issue is what gets him up every day. He called it the "fire in my belly."
Dellums concluded: "Martin Luther King, Jr., went a very long journey in a very short period of time. He went from Montgomery where he started, to Memphis where he died. He went from mere manhood to ultimate martyrdom. He went from the depths of misery to the top of the mountain. If that incredible, brilliant, courageous, Black man could go that distance in such a short period of time, then you and I gathered in this place can join hands across all the lines that divide us, as we now step into the millennium to finish the journey to perfection to take this country and this world...from oppression to freedom and toward peace."
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