The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 12, 1998

Jan. 12, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 17


Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Tribute: Levi Watkins Jr. and Ben Carson to keynote Wednesday's commemoration of the slain civil rights leader

Aaron Levin
Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

For the first time, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration and Awards Ceremony will feature speakers from within the Hopkins family. The podium duties will be shared by Levi Watkins Jr. and Ben Carson.

Levi Watkins Jr., who helped organize Hopkins' annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration and Awards ceremony six years ago, was 10 when he met the civil rights leader. This year's event, with talks by Watkins and Ben Carson, will begin at noon on Wednesday at Turner Auditorium, with closed-circuit viewing at four additional locations.

Previous speakers, most of whom were associated with the civil rights movement, have included Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Coretta Scott King, widow of the late civil rights leader.

The event, sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University, honors Martin Luther King Jr. and recognizes members of the Hopkins community who live exemplary lives rooted in his teachings. It is scheduled for noon on Wednesday, Jan. 14, in Turner Auditorium in East Baltimore.

"We are honored to have Drs. Watkins and Carson as our keynote speakers," says Colene Daniel, vice president for corporate and community services, because Watkins was instrumental in establishing the commemoration ceremony as well as the awards program, and Carson is a former Martin Luther King Jr. award recipient.

"As people and as physicians, both of them are shining examples of what Martin Luther King stood for," Daniel says.

Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery and associate professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics in the School of Medicine, received the award in 1995 for speaking each year to hundreds of local schoolchildren, encouraging them to make the most of their intellectual potential.

Watkins, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs and professor of cardiac surgery in the School of Medicine, was one of those who helped organize the annual awards program six years ago. The commemoration, however, had its roots long before, when Watkins was invited to speak at Harvard about King and civil rights during Boston's school busing crisis. "I realized on the plane that I was going to speak on these issues in Boston but not at my home institution."

The event is a celebration of the life and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Watkins says that King's principles--involvement in the lives of other people; love and selflessness in helping others not as well off as ourselves; and volunteerism--can and should be incorporated into contemporary life.

"These are nice and easy words," says Watkins, "but not so easy to put into practice, which is why we honor those who do it."

At the event, Watkins will respond to President Bill Clinton's recent initiation of a dialogue on race in America. While this step is less than Watkins had hoped for, he lauds the effort as at least a start at addressing America's racial problems.

"I'll go along with anything that will make progress," says Watkins. "I'm getting disappointed with racial 'conservatives' who find new ways of expressing old prejudices. I am disturbed by the demonization and vilification of affirmative action with the term 'race preferences' by people whose hands are not clean. I want to separate this myopic view from evaluation of the total quality of an individual."

Watkins was just 10 years old when he met King. The civil rights leader was minister at Montgomery, Alabama's, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Watkins family worshiped, and Watkins remains close to the King family today.

"As a child, I was always restless in church and anxious to get home," Watkins recalls. "But the first time I heard Dr. King speak, I settled down to listen to his sermon. I switched from wanting to get out to wanting to stay. Even as a child, I was struck by the power and spirituality of his sermons, week in and week out. Later, of course, his activism and courage put a stamp on my brain that continues to this day."

The Alabama of his youth was a tough and violent place to grow up black, Watkins says. But his own family and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. offered him hope of "breaking down all that ugliness."

After graduating from all-black Tennessee State in 1966, Watkins became the first African American to be accepted by and later to graduate from Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville.

"The first day at Vanderbilt was OK," he says, counting handshakes as progress, "but I was untested in a white environment and unsure of myself. All during medical school I experienced a lot of isolation."

While in training, Watkins encountered patients who didn't want to be touched by a black man. Patients and faculty used racial slurs routinely. The mnemonic which identified the color-coded electrocardiogram lead to the right arm began "White is right."

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968, when Watkins was in medical school, came as an enormous shock. "I was devastated, first by his death, and then by the uncaring reaction of the people around me."

"Still," Watkins says, "the experience at Vanderbilt opened my eyes. Some faculty members and students stood by me the whole time I was there. They are still my friends today. Despite my mixed feelings, I'm glad I went there. It helped me to get to Hopkins."

Watkins came to Hopkins in 1970 as a surgical intern and in 1978, became its first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. His medical research focused on a collaboration with cardiologist Michel Morowski at Sinai Hospital. Morowski had the idea for an implantable defibrillator for people with a potential for sudden cardiac death from heart arrhythmias; Watkins helped develop the technology and surgical techniques for this device, first in animals and then, once approval was granted in 1980, in humans. Today, between 10,000 and 20,000 people have this lifesaving operation every year.

Watkins has sought to apply Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings in his daily life at Johns Hopkins. After Watkins joined the Medical School faculty, Dean Richard Ross appointed him to the admissions committee in 1979.

"First, we had to educate the committee about the need to include more blacks and other minorities in the incoming class," says Watkins. "Then we started recruiting, and the numbers went from two to 15 African Americans per class. Now I read through 3,000 MCAT scores and write to 200 to 300 graduating seniors inviting them to apply."

To encourage minority applicants to enroll at Hopkins, Carson holds a reception for admitted students each spring. Watkins, in turn, hosts a fall gathering for all minority students, during which they get acquainted with the house staff, faculty and administrators.

"Now, as associate dean, I remind the faculty that we need African American residents, house staff and faculty in order to prepare people for senior staff posts. Talking inclusion is one thing; living it is another."