Actress honors the memory of a leader of social change

Cicely Tyson speaks at Hopkins' King event

January 17, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

THE SCREEN ACTRESS — Actress and activist Cicely Tyson spoke yesterday of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famed dream of racial harmony before a full house of 500 during the Johns Hopkins medical campus' 22nd annual celebration of King's birthday.

The screen actress - who starred in Sounder, Roots, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman - was the keynote speaker at the event in Turner Auditorium on the Johns Hopkins Medicine campus, one of the nation's oldest observances of the slain civil rights leader's birthday. King, killed by an assassin's bullet in Memphis in 1968, would have turned 75 this week.

King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963, was the starting point for Tyson's address. She told the Hopkins medical faculty and staff: "His dream was rooted in the American dream. You don't need permission to dream ... and listen to the heart's melodies."

Tyson, 72, wove into her speech several phrases from African-American poems and old spirituals.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" she asked, echoing the 20th-century poet Langston Hughes, and posing the question of whether King's dream - or prophecy - has yet come true. At one point, she took on the husky voice of a fictitious character she portrayed, a former slave known as Miss Jane Pittman, who supposedly lived to the age of 102.

"Don't turn back, don't you fall now," she said in a gruff whisper, quoting Hughes' poem "Mother to Son," "I'm still climbing. Life for me ain't been no crystal stairs."

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a cardiac surgeon and associate dean at the Hopkins School of Medicine, knew King as the idealistic pastor for his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church group when Watkins was growing up in Montgomery, Ala. The doctor maintains close links with King's family and organizes the yearly Hopkins tribute to King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent philosophy of social change.

Even in the face of police dogs, fire hoses, arrests and jail in the 1950s and 1960s, Tyson said, "Dr. King was convinced that nonviolence was the key to social change for a people that had been beaten, denied, segregated and enslaved for hundreds of years. He stood up to what he called the iron feet of oppression."

Tyson said she never met King. She was doing avant-garde theatre in New York while he was in the Deep South.

Several who listened to Tyson's speech said the event was uplifting. Jennifer Reed, 51, an equal opportunity officer at the hospital, said, "She [Tyson] made you feel she was speaking right to you." Reed recalled taking a family trip to a Philadelphia church to hear King speak.

"He was mesmerizing to watch," Reed said.

There were some too young to have memories of King, who died 35 years ago. Registered nurse Margo Preston-Scott, 37, brought her 15-month-old son, Micah, along. "I don't know if he understands Martin Luther King, but one day he will," she said.

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