Want peace? Work for justice

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September 17, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

NEWS PHOTOS of the Washington site for a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial lead to a version of the "what I did on my vacation" essay.

The crescent-shaped, Tidal Base location seems most accommodating and grand. With a design contract about to be awarded to a San Francisco firm, work may now proceed on a fitting tribute. The park-like site lies close to the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King made his luminous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Memorials can seem like obligatory, check-it-off the list of must-visit attractions, particularly in Washington. On hot summer days, that weary feeling cannot be held against us. But we are, most of us, awed by the sight of monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and, in time, Dr. King.

On vacation with two 12-year-olds this summer, I saw the splendid King memorial complex in Atlanta. I was surprised that nothing on the super highway seemed to mark its existence or the proper exit to use on the way. A helpful young woman gave good directions over the phone, but I saw many more signposts for the Carter Center than for Dr. King.

We were in a bit of a hurry on the day we were there, but we toured the house where he was born, sat in the sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to recorded speeches, many of which echoed down through the years for the oldest member of the group.

On the way to the birth house, one walks from a parking lot past the large King museum. In a small courtyard stands the statue of a frail-seeming, slightly stooped and robed figure. Who it might be was not immediately apparent from a distance but quickly the image of Gandhi came into focus. Here was the progenitor of creative non-violence and civil disobedience, the philosophical godfather of King's movement for justice in this country.

One thought then quickly of Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail to protest some tax matter.

"Why are you there, Henry?" asked Thoreau's friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Why aren't you in here?" Thoreau replied.

In time, Martin Luther King Jr.'s life asked that question of every American -- and still asks it. Can anyone be free as long as one man is enslaved, discriminated against, denied due process? If all else fails, one is obliged to break the law, accepting the consequences.

Up the street from the large King exhibition hall, the tourist finds the King house and an accommodating U.S. Park Service guide named Candice Spicer, who imparts information and then playfully conducts a quiz to see if everyone was listening.

Martin Luther King Jr. was known as M.L. as a young man. He was named Michael at birth and then renamed Martin in honor of a just-deceased family member. One learns that King's father, famous to the world later as Daddy King, went to Morehouse College to study theology and to win the hand of his wife: the elder King's future father-in-law wanted a man of accomplishment for his daughter.

Ms. Spicer stops in front of a first-floor bedroom decorated as it was decades ago, largely in pink, by King's sister, Christine. She was, the guide says, "a pinkaholic." Dolls, vases, gloves, bed linens, all seem pink in hue.

"M.L. didn't like the dolls," says Ms. Spicer, "so he tore 'em up. He was not always non-violent."

He did not like washing dishes either, she says. He chose to stoke the old "octopus furnace" with its eight legs.

"He became a 9-year-old man," she says.

These stories get repeated by the young women from Baltimore, who relate them to friends. They have all read about Dr. King at Grace and St. Peter's School and now at Notre Dame Prep. Now he seems more human, more real, more immediate.

His life's impact arises for them often and often they realize it.

The theme of year 2000 at NDP this year is "Creating a Culture of Peace. The school's principal, Sister Christine Mulcahy, asks students to consider a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love," it begins.

The older visitor to the King home in Atlanta finds the experience a bit jarring. The house, the Park Service inscriptions, the crypt nearby where Dr. King rests forces a fresh recognition our history: Americans owned slaves; a brutal war was waged by some to preserve that right; discrimination was enshrined in the law; Americans who tried to change things were set upon by police dogs -- or murdered for their work at voter registration.

Yes, of course, we knew. But there it was again.

Candice Spicer says thousands pass through the King house every week. They are, she says, about 40 percent African-American; 40 percent white; 10 percent Asian; 10 percent other.

More will revisit Dr. King's life when the memorial is completed in Washington. Maybe there will be a sign showing visitors how to find it.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorial for The Sun from Howard County.

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