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Vol. LVIII, No. 3
February 10, 2006

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NIH Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr., with Remembrance, Song, Call to Action

On the front page...

NIH's 35th annual observance of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., transformed Masur Auditorium into a window on history with a bold perspective by Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

The Jan. 17 program, titled "Remember! Celebrate! Act!" honored what would have been King's 77th birthday with song, image and story — only this time, what might have been routine became a compelling seminar, the sort of class students vie to attend as they crowd around their favorite professor.


Dr. Clayborne Carson of Stanford University gives King keynote address.  

"Remember Rosa Parks," said Carson, emerging from behind the lectern and walking to center stage, where, speaking without notes, he set the audience at ease with his gentle, courtly manner.

Then came the bracing follow-up: "If not for the actions of Rosa Parks, Dr. King would've been a wonderful minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but we wouldn't be talking about him today. And without Coretta Scott King, there would be no King holiday, no King papers nor King Institute."

Carson, professor of history at Stanford University, was tapped by Mrs. King to edit Dr. King's papers. He now directs the project and the recently established King Institute, which is raising an endowment to ensure that the project's efforts continue in perpetuity.

"King didn't do it alone," Carson reminded his listeners, recalling how the civil rights movement's genesis in the Montgomery bus boycott had been planned by women such as Parks, a long-time NAACP worker and secretary of its local chapter. Her refusal to give up her seat was not spontaneous, but rather a well-orchestrated tactic leading to a test case challenging transit segregation. "And then the women decided they needed a leader — that is, a man," he noted wryly — implying that, in the 1950s, any woman, however capable, would have been rejected for such a powerful role.

The audience nodded and murmured in assent as Carson sketched out an argument that differed somewhat from the "Great Man" theory of history. In focusing on community struggle, he credited the women who spearheaded and maintained the movement.

  Guest speaker Carson (l) visits with attendees following the MLK program in Masur Auditorium.

And who also benefited from that struggle. "Women don't always recognize that the 1964 Civil Rights Act affected more non-black people — that is, women of other races — than blacks," the professor stated.

Indeed, there in evidence was Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, senior advisor to the NIH director, whose introductory remarks recalled her medical school days at Tulane in then-segregated New Orleans. In solidarity with blacks forced to sit behind buses' color barriers, she never sat down on a city bus during her years as a student there.

"My classmates thought I was crazy," she quipped, "but it made me turn to a course that I have followed here in Bethesda for the last 50 years."

As director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences from 1974 to 1993, Kirschstein was the first woman institute director at NIH. As prelude to the keynote address, her opening remarks traced how affirmative action advanced the standing of blacks and women at NIH as it established its EEO program, the Office of Research on Women's Health, the Office of Research on Minority Health and the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Meanwhile, in accompaniment, a slide show ran scenes from King's life. It was a poignant reminder of how young and audacious he was — at 26, as the new minister in the city of Montgomery, and with no experience in civil rights leadership, he began his "Call to Conscience."

Even so, Carson asserted, King was not only a civil rights reformer. "It was not just about riding in the front of the bus," he said, "but about being part of anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia." He noted that King went to the Ghanaian independence ceremony as the
Stanford’s Carson makes a point during his lecture.  
personal guest of Kwame Nkrumah, first president of modern Ghana and one of the most influential Pan-Africanists of the 20th century.

Carson then urged listeners to investigate for themselves how colonialism, Jim Crow and apartheid were vanquished. His hint: "Young people," he said, "were crucial.

"The Birmingham movement was a children's crusade because King was already in prison," he said. "The uprising in Soweto, South Africa, was launched by teenagers; Nelson Mandela was in prison."

From this international perspective, Carson urged his audience to action by quoting one of King's sermons given the year before he was assassinated: "If you take a stand for that which is right, you will never go alone."

So now, asked the professor, what entrenched social evils in the world are young people of the twenty-first century going to fight? "Are they going to eliminate poverty? Will health care be distributed only to those who have money?"

Speaking to his audience at NIH, those dedicated to "medicine for the public," he couldn't have asked for a better reception.

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