Memories of King's lessons Protege: Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. once benefited firsthand from the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

January 15, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The eminent Baltimore heart surgeon Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. stretches out his hand to show a light, thin line, the scar from an old cut.

"I don't know if you can see it," he says. "It was so clean."

It's not just the odd mark from some forgotten injury. It's a souvenir of hate from his youth in Montgomery, Ala. It's also a reminder of the lessons that Watkins, now a distinguished professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, carries with him from his days in Montgomery with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the 68th anniversary of King's birth, Watkins will hold his annual memorial to the late civil rights leader, whose legacy of peaceful protest in demand of social justice has made him a venerated figure across the globe. Back in Montgomery of the late 1950s and early '60s, Watkins was among those first to act on King's teachings.

Simply going to the movies was a dangerous adventure for an African-American youth at that time, when new laws against discrimination were being passed against a background of fire hoses, attack dogs, bombings and murder. The young Levi Watkins and some of his friends decided to test those laws at the Paramount Theater in downtown Montgomery.

"They did let us in -- the front," he says. "They used to let us in the back. They were playing that movie 'Gone With the Wind.' I guess we cheered at the wrong part when they were getting Atlanta. "Man, when we came out of that movie, all the white guys circled us. There were only four of us, about 20 of them. And they beat the hell out of us.

"My first cut," he says. "Those boys got the razor blades out. Didn't know I was cut."

It was one of many times that Watkins, one of a group of teen-age boys who met often with the young pastor at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, would have to brace himself to practice the principles King taught.

"We had to control our anger and subject ourselves to his concept of nonviolence," Watkins says. "You know that's telling a young person a lot. To get your butt beat and turn around and don't do anything about it.

"But we subscribed to that," he says. "To this day I have never owned a gun or a knife or anything, although I could have used them a few times."

As King led the Montgomery bus boycott that launched him to international renown and sparked the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early '60s, he would point Watkins and others in his church along their own path to survival and success.

"Spirituality," Watkins says, "I want to use that word, spirituality, and principles of humanity were among the first things I learned from him. He touched me and all the other guys of the church."

The Watkins family were members of the Dexter Avenue church, where King, fresh from theology school at Boston University, preached. Levi was also a member of the Crusaders, a youth group King met with almost every Sunday.

Watkins recalls his time with the young preacher with great fondness and a kind of reverent nostalgia. King, he says, was modest and unassuming, and easy to talk with.

"Oh God yes!" he says. "He had a great sense of humor. He was very easy to talk to, very amiable and funny. He was a young man. He had finished his graduate stuff but he hadn't finished his dissertation."

King was 25 when he arrived in Montgomery in 1954; 39 when he was assassinated in 1968.

Watkins is himself easy to talk to, sharp, witty, amiable, but with strong convictions. He's fiftyish, youthful, long and lean in his scrubs and lab coat. He starts this conversation about 7: 30 a.m. before a morning in surgery.

Until King came, Watkins says, Dexter Avenue was a quiet little church, a handsome, restrained brick Gothic structure, catty-corner from the Capitol of Alabama, where George Wallace reigned as the field marshal of segregation.

"And we were not the activist church, in the sense of hitting racism. We were activist in terms of spirituality. But what he brought in was this racism element, dealing with [racists] collectively, as well as spiritually."

In his meetings with the Crusaders club, though, King emphasized education, not agitation.

"We never talked about activism in there," Watkins says. "I guess it was about keeping us in school, keeping us from losing ourselves, growing up in that environment of gross primary racism."

These were also literally the explosive years of the civil rights struggles. King's home was bombed. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy's home and church were bombed; a bomb exploded at the home of E. D. Nixon, another leader of the bus boycott. Snipers fired at integrated buses. A shotgun blast ripped into King's home.

But, remarkably, Watkins says: "Fear was not a central part of things."

"I think one of the powerful messages that came from King was love," he says. "And that goes back to that humanity. I think that when you're rooted deeply in that you don't have fear. He didn't seem to be scared of anything."

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