Of Kings & Presidents

I remember the day in 1968 that Martin Luther King was assassinated. My mother, our neighbor Delores, and I had just come out of a bookstore in Los Angeles. Mom revved the engine of our blue VW bug as we buckled ourselves into its funky, pleather seats. Just before we pulled away from the curb, bad news squawked through the speakers of our AM radio. The emotional announcer said that King had been gunned down on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis; he was in critical condition. We raced home to hear the latest update from CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, whom we trusted like a friend. When Walter told us Reverend King was gone, we knew it was true.

Inauguration Day, Barack Obama stood on the Washington Mall
Inauguration Day, Barack Obama on the Washington Mall

At seven years old, I flipped through the then-popular LIFE magazine issue with King’s grieving widow and four small children on the cover. I watched the footage of him and other leaders demanding civil rights by marching through the streets of the South, under threat of attack dogs, hoses and police billy clubs. And I saw pictures of King speaking before hundreds of thousands on the Mall in Washington, DC, sharing his vision of an America where his own children—and children of all races, faiths and colors—could live in a nation where nothing prevented them from rising as high as their wings would take them.

Cut to January 19, 2009. As we observed what would have been King’s 80th birthday, his dream of full equality seemed more real than ever. An African-American man stood poised to become this nation’s first Commander-in-Chief. Then-President-elect Obama issued a call of service to all Americans; he then spent the King holiday painting walls at an emergency shelter for homeless teens, and visiting wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.

The King Holiday has actually been a day of service since 1994, but this year a record number of Americans in all 50 states responded to Obama’s call to report for duty. In total, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers took on more than 13,000 projects, nearly tripling last year’s record of 5,000 projects.

Calling it a “day on” rather than a “day off,” volunteers went into communities nationwide and lent a hand where it was most needed. Here are some highlights of the holiday:”

—The National Alliance for Faith and Justice recruited mentors for children of prisoners and other at-risk youth at more than 425 places of worship as part of Justice Sunday.

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—Campus Kitchens engaged hundreds of college students and volunteers in leading hunger relief programs, including in Washington, DC, where volunteers helped prepare 5,000 meals for delivery on King Day.

—More than 16,000 college students from 130 campuses in 28 states engaged in service projects, ranging from neighborhood clean-ups to preparing and serving meals to hospice patients.

— More than 600 Boys and Girls Clubs engaged members in community clean-ups, writing letters to soldiers, organizing food drives, visiting senior centers and creating care packages for sick children.

For my part, on January 19, I got a chance to connect with an aspiring African writer. That day, I received an email from the young journalist who lives in Ethiopia, asking me to send him books on journalism and a tape recorder to help with his job. Although I visited the country in 2000, I don’t remember meeting this young man. But somehow he got my email address. I wrote him back: “Yes, of course I’ll send you those things, on condition that you keep me apprised of your work.” The amazing aspect of this for me is that I was touched by the children of Ethiopia during my trip, and wanted to find a way to connect with its younger generation.

As night fell on the King Holiday, and the sun rose on Inauguration Day, Barack Obama stood on the Washington Mall, just as Martin Luther King had 46 years earlier. Instead of the 250,000 in the audience in 1963, assembled in pursuit of jobs and freedom, and frustrated by racial inequity, this time the throngs numbered upwards of two million in the Mall vicinity. With his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, President Obama took the oath of office, signing up for what may be the toughest job in the world.

Barack Obama was only a toddler when Martin Luther King shared his dream for the future of America’s children. Perhaps the reverend’s powerful words took a circuitous route, and yet successfully made the trek from King’s lips to Obama’s ears.

by Pamela K. Johnson

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