Reprising a role she accepted nearly two decades ago, Coretta Scott King returns to Hopkins this week to serve as keynote speaker for the 2002 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. The event, celebrating its 20th anniversary, will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 11, at Turner Auditorium and Concourse on the East Baltimore campus and broadcast to several other university and health system locations.
Levi Watkins, founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration and chair of its committee, says that inviting back a past speaker breaks an unwritten rule of sorts. Yet, due to the hallmark occasion and the events of Sept. 11, Watkins says he felt this year's speaker had to be of the highest caliber.
"And we had already been through most of the people who had been related to the movement," says Watkins of the commemoration, whose speakers have included Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks. "We had never repeated, and I thought real hard and long--who do you get?"
Watkins, associate dean for postdoctoral programs and professor of cardiac surgery at the School of Medicine, says what led him to King was a gift she had recently given him, volume two of The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers, a collection of her husband's papers penned from September 1951 to November 1955. The volume is subtitled "Rediscovering Precious Values."
"After what America had been through, I thought that we could use the King program to rediscover precious values for America, values most powerfully articulated by Martin Luther King a long time ago. I'm talking about values of nonviolence, values of world peace, values of racial harmony," Watkins says. "Putting that together, I said, Who better than Mrs. King could describe and articulate his vision at this critical time, in terms of where we are racially today, where we are with violence and nonviolence and world peace?"
Begun in 1982, the Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration is intended to honor King's legacy of nonviolent activism and community service. The event had very humble beginnings but has steadily grown throughout its 20-year history.
Watkins says, taking into account the state of both domestic and world affairs, this is a "monumental and pivotal year" for the program. Speaking to the need for racial harmony, he points out the harassment of Arab Americans following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
"People did this while at the same time we were talking about how great our values were," Watkins says. "It is the ultimate irony when we are talking about the 'evil doers' and some of us have yet to free ourselves of our own prejudices."
Coretta Scott King, who spoke at the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, is one of the most influential women leaders worldwide. Born and raised in Marion, Ala., where she was valedictorian of her high school class, she received a degree in music and education from Antioch College in Ohio and then went on to Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, earning a degree in voice and violin.
While in Boston, she met Martin Luther King Jr., who was studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. The two married on June 18, 1954, and had four children together.
Following her husband's assassination in 1968, Coretta Scott King dedicated herself to preserving his legacy. That same year she founded the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a living memorial to her husband's life and dream. She served as president and CEO of the center from 1968 to 1995, at which time she handed over the leadership duties to her youngest son, Dexter.
Throughout the past two decades, she has carried on an exhaustive speaking schedule, bringing the message of nonviolence to every corner of the globe, meeting with heads of state and speaking out on injustice.
Watkins first met Mrs. King in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, when he was 10 years old. His family had gone to worship at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was creating quite a stir.
Watkins says that he and the minister's wife have become very close friends and confidants over the years. For her 70th birthday celebration, King asked Watkins to give the keynote address.
"She could have had anybody give the keynote address. There were too many celebrities and dignitaries there to mention. But she asked me because she said I am the person, the male, she has known the longest in her life right now," Watkins says. "We have been through a lot together."
Watkins says that while preserving her husband's legacy, Coretta King also has carved out her own niche.
"She took on her own personality by building the King Center, going out all over the world and extending herself to other things like women's issues, gay and lesbian issues, world issues, apartheid. She became an adviser to Nelson Mandela," Watkins says. "She is truly her own person."
The 2002 commemoration will include the 10th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards ceremony, in which seven Hopkins employees will be honored for having demonstrated through community service the same spirit of volunteerism and citizenship that characterized King's life. Providing musical entertainment for the celebration will be the Unified Voices, a gospel choir based at JHMI.
An estimated 1,000 people are expected at the event, Watkins says. Those who are unable to attend can view it on closed-circuit television at 218 Maryland Hall, Homewood; Kossiakoff Center, APL; Anna Baetjer Room, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Carroll Auditorium, Bayview; and Tilghman Auditorium, Hurd Hall and Patient Channel 32, JHH.