Friday, April 4, 2008

After 40 years, living King’s legacy

Today, leader’s lessons inspire new generation

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Gazette file photo
Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene W. Grant tries to incorporate Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious principles into how he governs. ‘‘Sometimes, in the society in which you live, it’s difficult to weave the fabric ... of your religious convictions with your politic. That is the concept that people generally tell you not to talk about,” he said.
It happened 40 years ago today.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet struck the neck of Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

King had been in town preparing to march with striking Memphis sanitation workers to fight low wages. He gave his famous ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the day before.

But after being rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where emergency surgery was performed to help save his life, King — considered the leader of the civil rights movement — died an hour after being shot.

He was 39.

As the nation remembers King, some Maryland politicians say that his dream has not been realized, but his beliefs and ideals still resonate in their everyday lives.

‘‘If you follow his writings and his teachings, he was a man who was ahead of his time, with respect to integrating his faith and convictions with the everyday life of people,” said Senate President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Dist. 45) of Baltimore, who was a senior at Morgan State College when King was killed.

There were only ‘‘one or two” black senators in Maryland in the late 1960s. In those days, only a few black people would be accepted for a city council, state or national government, McFadden said. Now, there are 10 black senators in the Senate and 33 black delegates in the House.

‘‘So I think if these young elected officials ... read and reflect on their history to see how fortunate they are, they’ll understand that they too have a responsibility,” McFadden said.

Del. Herman L. Taylor Jr., second vice chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, was one of the first black lawmakers elected to represent Montgomery County in the General Assembly. He has also been involved in efforts to build the King memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington.

King and others sacrificed to give today’s young black politicians the chance to lead, said Taylor (D-Dist. 14) of Ashton.

‘‘They did so much and they knew probably that they would never be the beneficiary of the dream and all the things we receive today,” he said. ‘‘And there’s an issue with this generation for us to be mindful of that. Because we didn’t march and we didn’t go through the trials and tribulations, we didn’t experience that. So if we’re not mindful of that, we’re going to lose all that’s been gained for us by people who put principle over convenience.”

Taylor, the founder of Deskmate Office Products, said that King’s legacy influenced him to go into public service. And even as the sole operator of one of the District’s largest minority-owned office products distributors, others asked him to do more.

As he pondered a move into politics, Taylor would look at Georgia Avenue from his penthouse suite office. King paved the way for him to own his own business, Taylor said.

‘‘I got there because Dr. King led an effort that people like him shed their blood, share their tears, everything, and went to their graves ... all so America could be open to a Herman Taylor,” Taylor said. ‘‘... When they did this, they didn’t have me in mind, but they had a generation in mind, they had the future in mind.”

A growing legacy

King’s spirit is alive in the General Assembly, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis, who was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia when King was assassinated.

‘‘I’m a believer that Martin Luther King’s legacy comes a little more to fruition every year,” he said.

Still, the nation struggles to realize King’s dream, Busch said.

‘‘The country still has a certain residue of discrimination,” Busch said. ‘‘I think [his legacy] grows year by year ... but I think the fact that you honor Dr. King on a year-to-year basis, it helps you reflect on what he stood for and where you’ve come in the past 40 years.”

‘‘I’m not an African American, obviously, but I’m sure that the vast majority of African Americans in the legislature have suffered some sort of discrimination in their lifetime,” he continued. ‘‘And I’d like to think that America in general and our culture in general, that the vast majority of people have put beside them judging people on the color of their skin, or their race or their religion.”

While some politicians have been influenced by the struggles of the civil rights movement, Mayor Eugene W. Grant tries to incorporate King’s religious principles into his governing of Seat Pleasant, a city in Prince George’s County.

‘‘Sometimes, in the society in which you live, it’s difficult to weave the fabric ... of your religious convictions with your politic. That is the concept that people generally tell you not to talk about,” Grant said. ‘‘I think that his ability to really use his teachings in his everyday life is something that has been a major influence for me.”

Grant said he acted too aggressively with his council during his early days in office and pushed hard to get things done right away. But it was King’s six principles of nonviolence that taught him to forgive in politics, which is not always easy, he said.

King died during a tumultuous time in America, with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement becoming increasingly violent. But even as the times spiraled out of control, King remained nonviolent, relying instead on love to fight injustice, Grant said.

‘‘Taking the love approach, only a courageous person can do that. A person who is confident in themselves would choose love over nonviolence,” said Grant, whose nonprofit youth entrepreneur group, Global Developmental Services for Youth Inc., holds annual King parades along a highway bearing his name.

Though King was the face of a movement, it took several strong people to lead the charge for equality, said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro.

And much like Grant, Griffith said it can be tough to make changes in politics, even in today’s society.

‘‘Even though sometimes I get frustrated and sometimes I feel like I’m ahead of my time or behind my time and feel very alone, I’m reminded that so many people came before me and each did a little piece to allow me to even have access to the information and the opportunity,” she said. ‘‘So I feel obligated to contribute because of those that have come before me.”