`Another voice has been taken away - a voice of liberalism and progressive spirit'

Marylanders remember King as leader, role model

February 01, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON | STEPHANIE DESMON,SUN REPORTER

When Baltimore doctor Levi Watkins Jr. talks of the great loss of Coretta Scott King, who died yesterday at age 78, he speaks from a heart that had known her for more than five decades.

Watkins met Mrs. King and her late husband, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was a boy no more than 8 living in Montgomery, Ala. Watkins and his family attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King was the pastor and Mrs. King sang in the choir.

As he grew, Watkins would act as a driver, shuttling the pastor around town. And soon he joined their movement, helping to integrate Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he would study to be a physician.

"Her loss, to be honest, is for me of catastrophic proportions. I loved her and she loved me," said Watkins, associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University of School of Medicine and a professor of cardiac surgery. "I really do feel sorry and sad for America because another voice has been taken away - a voice of liberalism and progressive spirit. Right now all we hear is retrogressive conservative rhetoric that made the movement necessary in the first place."

Watkins saw Mrs. King two weeks ago, at an event in Atlanta honoring the holiday named for her late husband, the holiday she worked so tirelessly to see created. As her friend and sometimes her doctor, Watkins once again tried to persuade her to go to Baltimore to be treated at Johns Hopkins for a cancer that was diagnosed after her August stroke and heart attack.

But she could not be moved. She went instead to Mexico, at the behest of her family, to seek a more holistic treatment. "I was concerned she wouldn't make it back," he said.

On the floor of the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis yesterday, Mrs. King was remembered warmly. At Baltimore's City Hall, Mayor Martin O'Malley ordered the city's flags to fly at half-staff. Those who had met her - and some who had not - praised her as a woman who emerged from her husband's death to become a human rights hero in her own right, who never dropped the mantle of nonviolence.

Taylor Branch, the Baltimore historian and writer currently on tour promoting his third book about the King years, At Canaan's Edge, said the loss of Rosa Parks last year and now Coretta Scott King means the loss of the most notable remaining faces of a struggle that defined the nation.

"This is the last of the pioneers that will have worldwide resonance from that period," he said, calling from Atlanta.

Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat originally from Georgia, said Mrs. King was emblematic of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement: women.

"Women have always been in the shadows of history or behind some other male icon," he said. "Coretta Scott King was an icon unto herself. ... Her legacy is her legacy separate and apart from Dr. King."

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he joined Mrs. King in the late 1970s in a meeting with President Jimmy Carter to push for more black federal judges in the South. He said he admired her grace - and her toughness.

"She was soft-spoken, but she was very determined," he said.

For the students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - the majority of whom were born after Dr. King's assassination - Coretta Scott King has become one of the most public faces they know of the movement, said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC's president.

"They've had a chance to see a woman who has served as a leader in this country, someone who has been capable of bringing people of different backgrounds together," he said. "Anyone who has been a serious student of the post-civil rights period would understand that she had become a force in this country, someone who brought a great deal to any table of discussion about the issues we face in this country."

Perhaps the most indelible image of Mrs. King remains a photograph snapped more than 35 years ago of her at her husband's funeral, her head held high.

"Coretta stepped up to the plate after his death," said Kenneth Lavon Johnson, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge who as a student participated in a landmark sit-in in Baton Rouge. "Before that, he took the limelight, which was the way things were. But she obviously had a great deal of influence on him. She was the perfect person for him. She was his rock. She was his intellectual equal. If she hadn't been there, we wouldn't have had him."

"She was part of the network of freedom fighters who made sacrifices behind the scenes, as did many families in the forefront of the civil rights movement," said Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr., a Baltimore doctor whose family's history is entwined with the civil rights movement in Maryland. "[The Kings] were partners hand-in-hand. Now the torch has been passed and the book is complete."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the spirit the Kings embodied continues.

"I think some would say it's the end of an era, but not so," Ehrlich said. "What they stood for and what they stand for continues to evolve, and it's all positive."

Coretta Scott King came to Baltimore many times over the years. In the late 1960s, she was in town to back the formation of a union at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the 1970s, she spoke at Goucher College's graduation. Over the years she gave various talks.

In the late 1990s, she spoke at an event sponsored by Network 2000, a local professional women's group. Floraine Applefeld, one of the group's founders, recalls having lunch with her that day. It is an experience that has stuck with her all of these years.

"She was a role model for all of us," Applefeld said. "She was warm and giving and she was lovely to look at. She was so alive."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Kelly Brewington, JoAnna Daemmrich, Andrew A. Green and Jamie Stiehm and researcher Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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