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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 7, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 16
The Rev. Al Sharpton to Lead MLK Jr. Commemoration

Al Sharpton

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the most vocal and prominent civil rights leaders in recent history, will be the featured speaker at the 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration.

The Baptist minister was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and for decades now has been an outspoken advocate for people whom he believes have suffered racial injustices.

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. 11, in Turner Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus and will be broadcast to several other university and health system locations.

Sharpton joins an impressive list of past speakers that includes Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Earl Jones, Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.

In the past year, Sharpton has led a coalition against the use of pejorative terms in the mainstream media and music industry and featured in several cases that drew national coverage, most prominently the effort to remove radio shock-jock personality Don Imus from the airwaves following an on-air racial slur. He also came to the support of six black teenage boys in Louisiana, the "Jena Six," who were accused of beating a white classmate after a series of racially motivated incidents, including the hanging of nooses.

Levi Watkins, founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration and chair of its committee, said that Sharpton played an important role in bringing these cases to the world's attention.

"I, too, was concerned about some of the stuff that has happened in America this past year. I do not think they were isolated occurrences, and I thought he could focus on them," said Watkins, professor of surgery and associate dean of the School of Medicine.

Watkins said that he realizes that Sharpton will bring some color, and some controversy, to this year's event. "But sometimes you need a Frederick Douglass," Watkins said. "You can't have rain without thunder and crops without plowing. It's not a popularity contest. In my opinion, [Sharpton's] work far outweighs his warts, and I dare you to show me anyone without warts."

Sharpton has challenged the American political establishment to include all people "in the dialogue," regardless of race, gender, class or beliefs.

Known for his fiery oratory, Sharpton speaks against alleged racial injustice, as in the case of Sean Bell, who was shot to death by New York City police in November 2006. In protest, Sharpton organized a rally and led hundreds of thousands on a march down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. His daily radio show, Keeping It Real, is heard in more than 40 U.S. markets. He also hosts a TV show that explores contemporary issues in an informal, barbershop setting.

Born Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr., on Oct. 3, 1954, in Brooklyn, N.Y., he began his ministry at age 4, preaching his first sermon at Washington Temple Church of God & Christ in Brooklyn. Five years later, the church's Bishop F.D. Washington licensed his protege to be a minister in his denomination.

Sharpton's civil rights career began almost as early. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and William Jones appointed Sharpton, at age 13, as youth director of New York's Southern Christian Leadership Conference Operation Breadbasket — an organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr.

At 16, Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement, which organized young people around the country to push for increased voter registration, cultural awareness and job training programs. Sharpton, now a Baptist, attended Brooklyn College and was later presented with an honorary degree from A.P. Clay Bible College.

In 1991, Sharpton founded the National Action Network, a broad-based progressive civil rights organization that he still heads. From 1994 to 1998, he served under Jackson as director of the Ministers Division for the National Rainbow Push Coalition.

He is also author of the book Al On America (Kensington, 2002), in which he touches upon several hot-button issues of the day, including presidential politics and the Iraq War.

He still preaches, throughout the United States and abroad, on most Sundays and averages 80 formal sermons a year. One of his daughters works with him on his nationally syndicated radio program. (His other daughter is still in college.)

This year's MLK event theme is "Living the Dream and Securing Our Future." Watkins said that the name refers to the great steps taken toward equality and diversity while also acknowledging that work needs to be done.

In addition to Sharpton, Watkins wanted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to speak at the event, but the Illinois senator's busy campaign schedule prohibited it. "I felt that Obama's candidacy was a great representation of King's dream," Watkins said.

Friday's celebration will include the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards ceremony, in which eight Johns 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 L. Philomen Allen and Patrick Cummings, both of KSAS; Martina Leinz, SAIS; and Paul Thompson, SoM. Health system honorees are Christina Cardella, John Fuller, Anita Johnson and Wanda Moss, all of JHH.

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

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

For more information about the event, go to


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