Paying tribute to King with a parade

UP FRONT

January 11, 2001|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

It may have taken a while, but Baltimore will finally have a parade to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The parade, which takes place Monday, on what would have been the slain civil-rights leader's 72nd birthday, was the idea of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who asked the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Baltimore Community Relations Commission to produce it.

It will be a day to celebrate and also to reflect, says the man who will be the grand marshal of the inaugural event.

That honor will go to Dr. Levi Watkins, who knew King personally. The Johns Hopkins Hospital physician was born in Montgomery, Ala., and was a member of that city's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King preached.

"I am honored to be the grand marshal," Watkins says. "The impact he made on my life was quite personal."

Watkins probably will be thinking of that impact as he participates in this first-ever Baltimore event.

The parade begins at noon at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Eutaw Street. It will proceed south on MLK Boulevard and end at Russell Street. The reviewing stand will be at the intersection of MLK Boulevard and Baltimore Street.

Parade participants will be as diverse as America is.

The Irishman's Chorale, the Hispanic Business Association, the Korean Cultural Troupe and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church will all be represented, along with many other groups.

African-Americans will be represented by the Ebony Angels jump-rope team, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Edmondson Village Steppers and a number of other groups and individuals.

There will be floats, marching bands and choirs, along with the Oriole Bird, the Hand Dance Association and the United Horsemen's Association.

Riding in cars along the parade route will be 17 of Baltimore's "Living Legends," with grand marshal Watkins among them.

The "Legends" are people who were either directly related to the civil-rights movement or who have broken barriers of some sort in the city, says Tom Saunders, a supervisor at Baltimore's Community Relations Commission and the man who chose them (about 30 in all).

Three of the "Living Legends" participating in the parade talked to this writer about King, the civil-rights movement and how the movement affected their lives.

"It was a movement that opened up a segregated America for black people," Watkins says.

An associate dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a professor of cardiac surgery, Watkins was one of many who benefited from King's push to gain equal rights for minorities.

"I integrated the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and that led me to what I am now," Watkins says.

Watkins came to Hopkins in 1970 as a surgical intern. He became the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery at the hospital in 1978.

Watkins, whose family was friends with the King family and who remains in contact with King's widow, Coretta Scott King, says King did more than open the doors of education to him. "He also instilled a spirit of activism in me," he says.

That spirit had a lot to do with Watkins' succeeding when the going got rough. He was still at Vanderbilt when King was assassinated in 1968. "It was not a pleasant time for me," he says.

When he arrived at Hopkins, he helped open the doors for other African-American students. He joined the admissions committee at the medical school, and after four years, minority representation increased 400 percent, he says.

"Black people were in the basement. Now black people are interns and residents. That required activism," he says.

Raymond Haysbert, another "Living Legend," remembers hearing King speak when he came to Baltimore in the '60s.

Haysbert, a former owner of Parks Sausage Co. in West Baltimore and one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, recalls how times were much different before the civil-rights movement.

"I came up in a time when it was not fashionable to be black," he says. "I was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. I was discriminated against in the war, which was matched by the indifference I met after the war."

Haysbert and his wife eagerly joined the civil-rights movement in Baltimore.

"My wife and I joined in several marches," Haysbert says. He recalls one that particularly stands out in his mind.

"It was a `March for Baltimore,' " he says. "It was in '63 or '64. There were about 3,000 people. We marched to the Horizon House [apartments] over fair housing. That was the purpose of the march.

"We were chosen as the couple to ask to see an apartment. We were met at the door by the manager and a security guard."

The Haysberts were turned away.

"We knew we were going to be rejected," he says. "But we made the point."

He believes many people today don't understand why it remains important to know the history of the civil-rights movement.

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