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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2002
I do not claim to have been a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
I worked for his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, when I was an undergraduate at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where, when not in class, I helped to organize the black hotel and garbage workers. I also wrote press releases.
My work let me meet King several times and march with him in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. All who worked for him were impressed with his eloquence, charisma, drive, courage and sensitivity. Imagine how special we college kids, poorly paid and overworked, felt being in this famous man's orbit.
Those were heady days.
As we pay homage to King's life and work and as we approach the month that celebrates black history, I am reminded of a significant part of King's message many of us rarely pay attention to: While imploring white America to recognize its racism and heal itself, King asked black America to act on its own behalf, to help pull itself out of poverty and crime, to educate itself, to make a bright future for its children.
More than ever before, this part of King's vision needs to become reality for African-Americans. All of the marches, parades, concerts, television documentaries and speeches in his honor during the next weeks will amount to nothing but confetti if black people do not act and dedicate themselves to service.
Although King's widow, Coretta, along with her four children, is embroiled in controversy over marketing her husband's name and image, she has not lost sight of how blacks should honor him.
"We have called for people to remember to celebrate, and, most importantly, to act," she said recently from her Atlanta office. "We like to say we celebrate the birthday (in January) and not memorialize it, as we do in April (when he was gunned down). Now we should ask people to really commemorate his life with some form of service and to give back to the community.
"Martin Luther King gave his life loving and serving others, and we think it's a very appropriate way to celebrate the day. People can come together in a spirit of cooperation, love and humanitarian service to help someone else."
The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and Ebony magazine have developed tangible ways for blacks to personally continue King's legacy while, at the same time, transforming their communities, larger society and even the world:
Donate a day of service. Provide meals for the homeless, clean up the neighborhood or work with seniors.
Read and meditate on the writings of King.
Rededicate yourself to nonviolence in your personal relationships and work for the triumph of nonviolence in the world.
Work to eliminate racism and intolerance.
Conduct yourselves with dignity and discipline.
Get in touch with who you are and work in the community with others to renew the spirit of the black community.
Register to vote. Conduct a voter-registration drive.
Help rebuild the black family.
Work to end poverty at all levels.
Become a youth mentor.
Everywhere I travel in the United States, I see far too many black communities that do nothing or next to nothing to uplift themselves. Such inaction insults King's legacy.
I am often asked to identify the issues King would be working on if he were alive. Obviously, I have no real way of knowing. I do know, however, that he would be distressed by the blight that continues to sweep black America. He would wonder why black wealth is not returning to our communities. He would wonder why we are not investing in ourselves.
King, along with many others, gave his life getting laws on the books and persuading institutions to change, all moves that gave African-Americans added mobility. Today, we, black people, need to take the next step: We should look inward and dedicate ourselves to uplifting ourselves.
Martin Luther King III captured the essence of his father's message to black America. "For us to be truly successful, we have to create an opportunity for those coming behind us. We have to pull others up and not abandon them, and that is truly part of the philosophy of my father."
Individual action is everything. Blame and recrimination hold us back. To honor King, we, African-Americans, must first honor ourselves. We honor ourselves by doing for ourselves.