George Arnold keeps the words of Martin Luther King Jr. alive by committing them to memory and speaking them with the passion of a convert

BY HEART

January 14, 1998|By JUDITH GREEN | JUDITH GREEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Thirty years after his death, the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. continue to resonate in the American consciousness, as much because of the way he expressed them as because of what they meant.

That's certainly the case for George D. Arnold, a "convert and avid follower" of the late civil rights leader. For most of the past 30 years, he has dedicated himself to keeping King's voice alive by memorizing and reciting his speeches and letters. For Arnold, King's words remain living texts, not archival exhibits.

Arnold, 61, who works for the city of Baltimore's Housing and Community Development Administration, spends a large amount of his own time on this personal mission. He has delivered his program, "Echoes of Dr. King," to more 1,500 schools, churches and civic organizations since he started memorizing the King texts in 1969.

He has given King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the dedication of the chapel at Morehouse College, King's alma mater in Atlanta, and his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" address -- King's final public oration -- for 250,000 people in front of the

Lincoln Memorial at the 20th anniversary observance of the 1963 March on Washington.

Giving new life to King's words earned Arnold a city recognition day in 1990. Last week, it brought him to the stage of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where he narrated "Legacy of Vision: Martin Luther King Jr.," a work for chorus and orchestra by Jonathan Bruce Brown, for the state observance of King's birthday.

There he stood, in a black church robe with velvet facings and red crosses, and out rolled words that blazed across America three decades ago: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character " In Arnold's re-creation, which sounds uncannily like the voice of King, the message speaks again.

The latest of many citations and awards for Arnold's work comes tomorrow, the 69th anniversary of King's birth, when he will receive an award from the First Baptist Church of Norfolk, Va.

Tomorrow is also the first anniversary of another, more personal connection to King's birthday: the day Arnold's fourth granddaughter, Shala, came into the world. "It's easy to remember her birthday," Arnold smiles.

"Convert" -- Arnold's word, which he uses in the short biography he provides to his sponsors -- suggests that he was not originally a follower of King, and he readily admits that he first thought the civil rights movement King led was ineffectual.

He became an ardent believer, though, during the exciting years of the 1960s, when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference changed the attitudes and then the laws of the United States with their marches, boycotts and protests.

Shortly after King's assassination, whose 30th anniversary will be observed in April, Arnold began to exercise his memory by committing to heart King's speeches and writings.

He first tackled the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," a tract of more 7,000 words written when King was imprisoned for leading a civil rights march to the city hall of Birmingham, Ala., on Good Friday 1963. It has become a seminal text in the literature of civil disobedience.

Arnold told a friend of this feat of memory, but all he got was a comment that he must be insane to spend so much time for no reason at all. But Arnold enjoyed the challenge so much that he continued to memorize King's words.

By now, he estimates he has about 6 1/2 hours of the speeches and writings in his head, including all the major addresses and many of the lesser ones. He is able to draw on them without so much as a pause for reflection, quoting paragraphs by heart as easily, and as compellingly, as he quotes Scripture.

Arnold was born in Indianola, Miss., a place known for two things: as the home of blues singer B. B. King and the place where the White Citizens Council, a strident opponent of integration, was founded.

When he was 4, his family moved to Rockford, Ill., north of Chicago. That was in 1940, when the city was becoming a hub of tool manufacturing and the government needed every worker, whatever his or her color, for wartime production. Arnold remembers few racial incidents in this integrated town, and he was educated in its excellent public school system, which he says may account in part for his well-trained memory.

In 1954, Arnold says, "Air Force blue looked pretty good to me." He enlisted, and learned his first lessons in racial politics taking the train from Chicago to Greenville, S.C., where he was to report to Donaldson Air Force Base.

In Cincinnati, Arnold -- who was in the blue uniform he was so proud to wear -- was told by a black porter: "Perhaps you'll want to change cars here." When he failed to understand, the porter said: "Son, this is where we change," emphasizing the word so it had more than one meaning.

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