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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 16, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 17
Maya Angelou to Lead MLK Tribute

Maya Angelou has made her mark as poet, historian, author, journalist, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director.
Photo by Dwight Carter

25th annual event will include a remembrance of Coretta Scott King

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The featured guest and keynote speaker for Johns Hopkins' 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday remembrance, an event that takes place this week, will be Maya Angelou. The celebrated poet, playwright and civil rights activist joins an impressive list of past speakers that includes Harry Belafonte Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Earl Jones, Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.

Levi Watkins, founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration and chair of its committee, said that it's hard to believe how quickly the event's first 25 years have passed.

Watkins, a pioneer in the field of cardiac surgery and an active participant in the civil rights movement himself, said that he conceived the idea for the King commemoration as he was headed to Harvard to be the keynote speaker for its annual tribute to the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968.

"Here I was traveling to another school's King celebration, and Johns Hopkins did not have one," he said. "Right there on the plane I decided that I would dedicate myself to do whatever necessary to make sure we had one, too."

The event aims to celebrate not only King the man but also his living legacy and struggles.

"We are still struggling for diversity, still struggling with war, still struggling for economic equality," said Watkins, a professor of surgery and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs at the School of Medicine. "Unfortunately, all of those things still hold true today. So, we should honor him but also bring to light what there still is to struggle for."

A native of Alabama who knew King and many others tied to the civil rights movement, Watkins was the first African-American to be admitted to and graduate from Vanderbilt's School of Medicine, and was the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Among a long list of achievements, he performed the world's first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator.

Watkins also has been a champion of diversity and equality here at Johns Hopkins.

Begun in 1982, the Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration honors the Nobel Peace Prize winner's legacy of nonviolent activism and community service. This year's event will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19, in Turner Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus and will be broadcast to several other university and health system locations.

In choosing this year's keynote speaker, Watkins said he wanted to bring in a dynamic, powerful and emotional speaker who could touch upon the event's themes of diversity and peace. Watkins said he found all the qualities he was looking for in Maya Angelou.

Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary black literature, Angelou has authored 12 best-selling books and numerous magazine articles, earning her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations. A true Renaissance woman, Angelou has been a poet, historian, author, journalist, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director.

Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Angelou was raised in segregated rural Arkansas and began her career in drama and dance, using the professional name Maya Angelou, a combination of her childhood nickname and her married surname, Angelos.

She later moved to New York, where she met and married her second husband, a South African freedom fighter. In 1960, the couple moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she was editor of The Arab Observer, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East. In Ghana, she was feature editor of The African Review and taught at the University of Ghana. It was there that she met Malcolm X and earnestly began her civil rights involvement.

In 1964, she returned to the United States and at the request of Martin Luther King Jr. became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Since the late 1960s, Angelou has dedicated herself to her writing. She was among the first African-American women to hit the best-seller lists, with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a chronicle of her life up to the age of 16. Published in 1970, the book was greeted with great critical and commercial success and was later turned into a television special. Her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1993, Angelou became the second poet in United States history to write and recite an original work for a presidential inauguration, that of Bill Clinton. The piece, On the Pulse of Morning, garnered her wide recognition and later earned her a Grammy Award for best spoken-word recording.

In the film industry, Angelou has been a groundbreaker for black women. In addition to hundreds of appearances on television and in film, she has written and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including Afro-Americans in the Arts, a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. She was nominated for Emmy Awards for her acting in Roots and for her Pulitzer-nominated screenplay Georgia, Georgia, which was the first by a black woman to be filmed.

Today, Angelou continues to write and lectures throughout the United States and abroad. In 1991, she was named a lifetime professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Friday's celebration also will include a memorial tribute to King's wife, civil rights pioneer Coretta Scott King, who passed away last January, and the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards ceremony, in which 10 Hopkins employees will be honored for demonstrating through community service the spirit of volunteerism and citizenship that characterized King's life.

Being recognized from the university are Allison Barlow, SPH; Matthew Haag, SoN; Shawneen Kelley and Kristina Obom, both of KSAS; and Marvina Wright, SoM. Health system honorees are Sharon Baylis, Janet Hicks, Monica Maxwell and Anita McFarlane, all of JHH; and Jackqueline Meadows, Johns Hopkins HealthCare.

The Unified Voices Choir, a gospel group whose ranks include Hopkins staff and community members, will provide musical entertainment beginning at 11:30 a.m.

Those unable to attend can view the event on JHH Patient Channel 54 or via closed-circuit television in Hurd Hall and Tilghman Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus, the Asthma and Allergy Auditorium at Bayview, the Green Room at Mount Washington, the third-floor conference room at 901 S. Bond St. and 213 Hodson on the Homewood campus.

For more information about the event, go to


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