MAXWELL:  In celebration of a true American legacy

1/16/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



In many cities nationwide, the events celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. continue to be attended mostly by African-Americans and a handful of other civil rights advocates.

But this year, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many institutions are recognizing King’s legacy for what it really is: a true American legacy.

If any one person’s life exemplifies American citizenship, King’s life is it.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize not for battling an enemy in faraway caves but for showing the nation of his birth that it was not living up to its own core ideals. Not only was the United States compromising its ideals of freedom and opportunity for all, it had, as King argued so eloquently, systematically and institutionally turned an entire group of citizens into strangers in their own land.

In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, King has been honored with a national holiday. Bigots fought the effort, and a few states only recently joined the rest of us in recognizing the holiday.

Ebony magazine emphasizes the uniqueness of this event: “It (is) the first holiday recognizing a black man and King (is) only the third person, along with Christopher Columbus and George Washington, to hold the distinction of a national holiday in his honor.”

In Pinellas County, one of the traditionally white institutions that honored King this year is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater. Last Sunday, I spoke to the congregation and its guests about how we can honor King.

Besides me, the guest speaker, only two other blacks were in attendance. And that fact, perhaps, is the point: A group of whites _ in the absence of black presence _ recognize King in his own right. These people do not need attention. They honored King by reading his words, by listening to tapes of his voice and by promising to perform service for others.

From Clearwater, I drove to Gainesville, where the King legacy is gaining wider acceptance. The theme of this year’s celebration, “Building the Inclusive Community,” cuts to the heart of King’s philosophy of bringing people together.

In developing the theme, Rodney Long, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida, told the Gainesville Sun that the tragic events of Sept. 11 made him aware that embracing people of all religions and ethnicities is essential in making King’s dreams come true.

“The whole idea is to include organizations and individuals who have not participated before,” Long, who is black, told the Sun.

To make the celebration inclusive, he decided to kick off King Week 2002 at the First Baptist Church in downtown Gainesville. This was a big move because First Baptist is overwhelmingly white and represents, as Long describes it, “old America.” If the church accepted the invitation, the move would “break down some of these barriers,” Long said.

The Rev. William Pruitt, interim pastor of First Baptist, saying he was “thrilled to host this occasion,” was ready for Long’s challenge. “We are predominantly “old America’ in terms of members of the congregation, and we are predominantly white, but we are very inclusive,” he told the Sun. Indeed, the church hosts several other non-Baptist groups and events.

The University of Florida also makes Gainesville a leader in bringing people together. From Monday through Friday, UF is holding its 12th annual People Awareness Week. I spoke Monday night on the importance of reading in bridging the gap among various groups together.

As a former UF graduate student and writer for the Independent Florida Alligator, I know that the campus is more inclusive than ever before. Doubtless, the diversity celebration is part of the reason.

Beth Waltrip, assistant director of student activities, agrees: “We hope to remind everybody that there are differences between us, and that’s what makes life interesting and that’s a good thing. It’s easy to discount something that you don’t understand or you think is different. But by learning about other people’s differences, you can find that we’re really all much more similar than we think.”

Although I do not want to make too much of this apparent groundswell of reaching out to others following the events of Sept. 11, I welcome all efforts that attempt to bring us closer as a nation of various groups.

I know that incremental moves toward tolerance may make all the difference in the near future. King talked a lot about small gestures of kindness and understanding. In time, he said, such acts transform the human spirit.