King honored in word, deed

Politicians, volunteers and families celebrate holiday with good oratory, good works, good fun

January 16, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Celebrators of Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorated the national holiday yesterday with thunderous oratory, booming bass drums and good deeds across Baltimore - along with quiet introspection befitting the legacy of the civil rights leader.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings emphasized in an emotional speech at a memorial breakfast at Martin's West in Woodlawn that people must find the courage to speak out against injustice, just as King did a half-century ago in battling racial segregation.

The six-term Democrat from Baltimore said no one has "the right to remain silent," and briefly criticized President Bush's decision for a troop surge in Iraq.

"We have one life to live," Cummings said. "This is no dress rehearsal."

A few hours later, parents shepherded their children to the seventh annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in West Baltimore with the hope that the leader's message of tolerance and social justice would empower them to achieve. Elsewhere, others volunteered their time to spruce up schools and recreation centers.

Thousands lined the parade route along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to take in the music and dancing of several marching bands and to wave to political leaders such as Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon, who will take over as the first female mayor of Baltimore this week.

Bill Godsey of Forest Park took his 4-year-old daughter, Jadyn, to the parade to begin the telling of King's story. Jadyn had asked her father why she wasn't going to school yesterday, and her father wanted to show her.

"I was raised in the '60s," Godsey said. "I know the struggles. ... This means a lot.

"I hope we are talking about it on the way home, as much as she can understand."

Sitting with her son in lawn chairs in the median of the boulevard, parade watcher Kimberly Johnson, 40, of Parkside used a single word to define the significance of the holiday: "Freedom." She then elaborated: "Earning your rights, keeping your rights and using them in the right manner."

Johnson's son, Davone, 7, was attending the parade for the first time. Like several other paradegoers, Johnson said that many children take for granted the rights and opportunities that came into being during the civil rights movement. A few said their children had only a vague understanding of King and what he stood for.

"They learn the name, but they don't know the message," said Johnson, who has set off a portion of her basement for her family to listen to audio tapes of King's speeches and read stories about him.

The weather helped draw a healthy parade crowd, with viewers standing shoulder to shoulder and lined several deep along the route. Attendees in previous years faced snow, ice or biting wind, but yesterday they stood comfortably as the temperature spiked above 60 degrees. Many seemed to be feeling inspired, including Dixon.

Scores of black women applauded Dixon along the parade route. "There she is," several yelled, applauding her presence.

Dixon said her ascent to the mayoral seat is an example of the progress that has been made in the nearly 39 years since King, an advocate for minority and women's rights, was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

"The skies are the limits," Dixon said.

Elsewhere in the city, about 200 volunteers painted recreation centers and schools in Baltimore, built bookcases for classrooms and planted flower bulbs in pots to give to the elderly.

The efforts to clean up Barclay Elementary/Middle School in Charles Village and Harlem Park Elementary and Middle in West Baltimore were organized by the city and nonprofit groups such as the Parks and People Foundation, Civic Works and Business Volunteers Unlimited.

"In honor of Dr. King's birthday, we brought together volunteers and business people to do volunteer work," said Kate Scherr, director of volunteer services for Business Volunteers Unlimited. "Dr. King's vision was to bring communities together and make positive changes, and volunteerism does that."

So does forgiveness, as Cummings learned yesterday.

When he was 8, Cummings joined a weeklong protest against segregation of an Olympic-sized swimming pool at Riverside Park in South Baltimore. That pool was seven blocks away from one that Cummings and other black children regularly used: a 2-foot-deep wading pool that is now a parking lot for Ravens stadium.

Some reacted with violence against the protesters. Cummings was struck by a bottle above his right eye, leaving a permanent scar. After telling that story at the hall yesterday, he was approached by a white woman who grew up in South Baltimore. She regularly swam at Riverside, she told him, but was not allowed to during the protests.

Cummings said the woman apologized for what happened to him nearly 50 years ago - an act he said sent chills through his body.

"That is the sign of progress," he said.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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