Revisiting King's life Holiday: Some say Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebrations aren't fully recognizing his accomplishments.

January 15, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Nearly 30 years have passed since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis -- long enough for many folks to take racial integration for granted, for people once labeled "colored" to embrace their heritage as African-Americans, to have a national holiday declared in honor of King's birth 69 years years ago today.

Churches and synagogues hold annual prayer services in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, birthday breakfasts and symphonic tributes are common and schoolchildren enter essay contests dreaming of the day when racism is remembered, not lived.

But as the years and honors rise like so many memorial highways, something is happening to the legacy of the Baptist preacher who turned a 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., into a long march for the rights of the disenfranchised.

Louis Hudson Pinkney, an Ashburton resident who attended King's 1963 March on Washington with his parents, fears that before long, department stores will celebrate King's birthday the same way they mark the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln.

"His birthday doesn't mean as much as his accomplishments. I )) don't see him quoted much except around January," said Pinkney, 50, director of real estate and freight services for the Mass Transit Administration.

"Essay contests are OK, but they're starting to seem like the easy way out. It's hard for me to believe we haven't thought of something else."

In the 18 years that Pamela Love has organized King essay contests, the director of the Woodholme Recreation Center in Northwest Baltimore has seen knowledge wane and creativity fade.

"Black or white, children don't seem to know their history like they should," said Love. "We have to give them background information before they start writing and then we hear about the dream over and over. We'd like them to know that his life is more than one speech or one march."

Instead of giving children a day off or sitting them down to copy information out of the encyclopedia, Pinkney favors piling them onto buses for trips to museums, institutions or street corners where history was made.

"King started with race in the South and broadened his campaigns to economics and the war in Vietnam," said Pinkney, who fought in Southeast Asia.

Youngsters, he said, should look beyond anything spoon-fed to them and seek people whose lives were changed by a man "whose greatest threat to the status quo was his ability to attract the widest constituency since the Depression hammering the establishment for equal treatment."

New generations, said Pinkney, should commit themselves to a couple of hours in the company of a man like 85-year-old Jesse Rogers, a retired steel worker and union leader from the 2700 block of Greenmount Ave.

"I think Martin King represented the human race," said Rogers, who remembers a visit to Maryland by King to support a statewide public accommodations bill in the mid-1960s.

"I don't generally speak on racial terms," said Rogers, "but when I was drafted during World War II, I didn't want to go. I couldn't see fighting for a country where Pratt Street hobos could slobber all over their food in downtown lunchrooms but a black person couldn't get served."

With King in the lead, that America changed before Rogers' eyes, at least on the surface.

Once reluctant to defend a nation that denied him basic rights, Rogers says he began to appreciate the United States after witnessing the poverty of Africa and Italy during the war.

"This is the greatest country in the world, but we're still dealing with this mix-up about race we've had right from the start," he said.

"We need a leader like Martin Luther King today. A man who not only speaks about rights, but doesn't forget to put God in there, too."

Until that leader comes along, said Brendan Walsh of the Catholic Worker movement, the least people could do to honor King's memory on his birthday is take to the streets to protest the injustices outside our doors.

To that end, Walsh, his wife, Willa Bickham, and patrons and supporters of the Viva House soup kitchen they founded 29 years ago in Southwest Baltimore will protest outside the Murphy homes public housing at 4 p.m. today.

The Viva House community is angry that the 800-unit high-rise -- like others already demolished in East and West Baltimore -- will be demolished this summer and replaced with 362 low-rise dwellings and townhouses, some of which will be sold for $50,000. Out of the existing 800 units, said Walsh, only about 20 percent will be re-built for poor families, creating a new wave of homelessness.

Another social protest will take place about 4: 30 p.m. today near the site of the proposed Wyndham Inner Harbor East Hotel, to be built with more than $40 million in public subsidies that activists say would be better used on education and jobs.

"Martin has been reduced to prayer breakfasts and essay contests and certainly not celebrated out in the street where he was best known," said Walsh. "No matter how bad the weather, every year we try to commemorate him in some way where he did his work -- outside."

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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