King celebrated with good deeds, warm tributes

Members of the Philadelphia Postal Employees Choir perform at the opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service events at Girard College.
Members of the Philadelphia Postal Employees Choir perform at the opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service events at Girard College. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 22, 2014

Inside the cold stone walls of historic Eastern State Penitentiary, a young actor, about the same age as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was when he was killed, read from King's stirring Letter From Birmingham Jail.

In King of Prussia, seven people connected to the Brandywine Peace Community were arrested for trespassing at Lockheed Martin in what they said was a King-inspired act of civil disobedience.

And at one of the nation's largest Day of Service events, thousands of people from across the Philadelphia region gathered at Girard College to take part in scores of volunteer projects in the name of the martyred civil-rights leader.

The 19th annual celebration of Martin Luther King's Birthday was a day of memory, motion, and meaning. In schools, churches, colleges, and other places, people gathered to advance King's vision. And everywhere, the crowds looked a lot like he would have liked - black, white and Asian, young and old, rich and poor, Jew and gentile.

"This has a special resonance," said Mike Felker, 63, who handed out literature at Girard College for Veterans for Peace, a group that works against gun violence. King was killed with a rifle.

Felker served as a Marine medic in Vietnam, where he refused to carry a weapon. He was eager to heal wounds, he said, but was not going to inflict them. The death and trauma he saw in Quang Nam province followed him home to Philadelphia.

"We don't need to have as many guns out there," said Felker, now a graduate coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania. "If I can get through a war without carrying a gun, maybe people can get through the streets of Philadelphia."

Organizers estimated that a record 125,000 local volunteers were taking part in King day activities, with 5,000 alone gathering at Girard.

"I love the spirit of people here today. It's about peace," said Daddese Ekulona, a leader of the Members of the Buffalo Soldiers Resurrected, who came to the college in the uniform of the 1860s African American troops.

He spent hours talking to people about the soldiers, who fought on the Great Plains.

Elsewhere in the hall, Girl Scout Troop 9450M mounted Operation Cozy Toes, distributing new socks to needy children, and the After School Activities Partnership mounted fierce games of chess against all comers.

The Eagles Youth Partnership and Target gave out free books to any child who wanted one. Autumn Robinson, 9, picked out the Alvin and the Chipmunks Joke Book.

"I like jokes," the fourth grader said.

Rows of information booths offered pamphlets on everything from sickle-cell anemia to Reiki healing, the Japanese technique for stress reduction.

Briana Graham, 16, and her 15-year-old friends Firdaws Hagos and Shequana Callender stood before a pile of baby clothes, disposable diapers, and bibs, giving free supplies to new and expectant mothers.

"We're just here to help," Graham said.

She and her friends volunteered for Pamper and Diaper My Baby, a nonprofit that provides emergency help to new mothers.

The hall was packed with people.

"I'm thrilled with the turnout, with the quality of projects that have been organized," said Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. "Dr. King was a champion of action 365 days a years. . . . These efforts are focused on making that legacy real."

Mayor Nutter was there. So was the Phillie Phanatic. And Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator who in the early 1960s was an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and worked with King.

The politicians gave speeches. But the real meaning of the day was the one-to-one connection among people for whom King's dream remains real.

"One people. That's what I see here today," said Margarette Crawford, 70, dressed in the pink of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the African American sorority.

She's old enough to consider what might have been.

Her personal regret: Not going to the March on Washington in 1963, perhaps King's greatest moment, where he delivered his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech.

Her greater sadness: That so much was taken in those terrible days of 1968. What if King had survived, and Bobby Kennedy, too? The world would be different. Do children know what was lost? Can they find the interest and strength to pick up that fallen standard?

King was 39 when he was shot to death on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He had gone to Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated two months later while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in Los Angeles.

The United States now celebrates the third Monday of every January, which falls around King's Jan. 15 birthday, as a time for people to take part in projects King would have supported.

On Monday, the annual ceremony at the Liberty Bell included a reverential nod to the late South African President Nelson Mandela.

Gov. Corbett, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D. Pa.), and Nutter joined South African Consul General George Monyemangene, who slipped on white gloves and tapped the Liberty Bell at noon as bells across the country rang in honor of King.

Mandela, said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), "walked from the jailhouse into the presidency of South Africa. He took with him a responsibility to do his part and heal his nation - and Dr. King did likewise here in the United States."

In South Jersey, more than 1,000 students, faculty, and volunteers from Richard Stockton College tackled a slew of projects in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean Counties. They painted an auditorium at the Police Athletic League Center in Atlantic City, collected canned goods for food pantries at the college's Woodbine site, helped with Hurricane Sandy cleanup in Tuckerton, and offered free computer help in Manahawkin.

Officials at St. Joseph's University were hearing from reporters about the discovery of a "lost speech" - which actually was never lost - delivered there by King in October 1967, less than a year before his death.

A 47-year-old audio tape found in the collection of a journalist who covered the talk has gotten publicity, though the university said Monday that it always had a recording of King's lecture to 3,400 people.

The speech is fascinating. It came only months after King had broken with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War, calling for a firm date for full troop withdraw.

At St. Joseph's, King criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson for being more worried about winning "an unjust war in Vietnam than in winning the war on poverty here at home." King's once-supportive relationship with LBJ deteriorated.

At Eastern State Penitentiary, the 1829 prison in the city's Fairmount section, 40-year-old Newtown Square actor Dax Richardson read King's Letter From Birmingham Jail.

King had been arrested in April 1963 for violating Alabama's law against mass demonstrations. The day he went to jail, eight Birmingham clergy members criticized him in the Birmingham News.

King's letter was a defense of his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.

"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," King wrote. "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Many people believe King just wrote and mailed it. In fact, he began writing on the margins of the newspaper in which he was criticized, continued on scraps of paper, and concluded on a pad that his lawyers later were allowed to give him.

Ignored and criticized at the time, the letter has become a seminal text of the civil rights movement.

"Reading it in a prison helps people really understand what it was like for King," Richardson said. "To me, it's even grander than 'I Have a Dream.' I find myself hearing his voice as I read the words."



Contributing to this article were staff writers Maria Panaritis, Jacqueline L. Urgo, and Bob Warner.

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