Current weather

  • Scattered clouds
  • 54°
    Scattered clouds

Keeping the dream alive

'I thought everybody's daddy went to jail,' says child of civil rights leader

Posted: Monday, January 19, 2004

ATLANTA The names of Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Hosea Williams have become synonymous with the grassroots movement for equality that came to define their generation.

This close-knit community of leaders endured bombings, beatings and arrests, sometimes witnessed by their children, who grew up on the front lines of the civil rights struggle.

''I've thought a lot about my children and the plight that they were in because they didn't ask to be in that situation that my husband and I had chosen,'' Coretta Scott King said.

As the children of the movement got older, many faced a different kind of challenge carrying on the struggle their parents fought so hard to begin.

While some have chosen to carry on their parents' work, others have pursued their own passions. For the aging group of freedom fighters, their main hope is simply for the next generation to pass on the poignant lessons of their youth.

King said she often relied on the values of the church and her late husband's teachings in raising her children.

''I think that somehow because of all the values ... somehow they were able to absorb and understand and get through not that it wasn't painful and not that it didn't leave some scars,'' King said. ''But the fact is that they're able to be productive, caring, giving human beings today, and I am unbelievably proud.''

Despite inevitable expectations, many leaders say their work cannot simply be passed on.

''I choose to live dangerously, and I try not to coerce or persuade my children to do it,'' Lowery said. ''I would like them to admire their parents but feel their own calling.''

It is the responsibility of an entire generation, not just the children of famous figures, Lewis said. ''This generation is too quiet and somehow needs to find a way to become involved and make a little noise and start pushing and pulling and moving society much further ahead in the same way that we did,'' he said.

Growing up under the enormous legacy of their father often was a challenge for Martin Luther King Jr.'s children.

Despite Coretta Scott King's ongoing work to honor her late husband's legacy, eyes inevitably turned to Yolanda, Martin, Dexter and Bernice when the Atlanta-based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change began looking for its next leader in 1995.

Dexter King eagerly took on the challenge, while Martin Luther King III led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which his father co-founded and led until his assassination in 1968. Both sons faced the inevitable comparisons to their father.

''I think that's human. We automatically assume ... that a child is going to be just like their parent,'' said Martin Luther King III, who acknowledged using his nickname, Marty, when he was in college so people wouldn't know his legendary roots.

When Dexter King recently decided to step down as president of The King Center to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, Martin Luther King III agreed to fill the position.

''What I decided long ago was that I would be best Martin I could be,'' Martin Luther King III said. ''I'm not trying to be him. That would be impossible.''

n n n n n

Sitting in her late father's office, piled with clothing donations and bustling with volunteers, Elisabeth Omilami couldn't help but laugh.

She remembered a time when the last thing she wanted to do was take over the organization where she often volunteered, growing up as the daughter of its founder, Hosea Williams.

''You could call it volunteering. It was more like coercion because any teenager is not going to want to spend every Saturday cooking and serving homeless men,'' said Omilami, 52, who pursued an acting career after graduating from Hampton University with a degree in theater.

She said the arts provided her a haven from a tumultuous childhood marked by 11 protest arrests before she was 14.

Her life never strayed too far from her activist roots, nurtured by Williams, the fiery lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr.

She returned to Atlanta to join her father's staff full-time at the Hosea's Feed the Hungry and Homeless program in 1995.

After Williams' death from prostate cancer in 2000, Omilami took the reins. The program served 40,000 people during its holiday dinners at Atlanta's Turner Field last year.

''I think his philosophy of life helped me to create my philosophy of life,'' she said. ''I began eventually believing that if you're not serving people in a very concrete way that your life is missing something.''

n n n n n

Cheryl Lowery-Osborne never fully realized how unusual her childhood was until her 10-year-old son asked her one day why he wasn't allowed to answer the telephone.

It was a maternal instinct nurtured by years of hostile calls and bomb threats that terrorized her family throughout her youth, as her father fought desegregation and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

''Being a movement child has clearly shaped my entire thought process,'' she said. ''You can't get away from being Joseph Lowery's daughter.''

School integration, marches and picket lines were a way of life for Lowery-Osborne and her two older sisters, Karen and Yvonne.

''I thought everybody's daddy went to jail,'' she said half-jokingly, recalling the numerous protests and marches the dynamic Methodist preacher organized most notably the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Lowery's activism even followed his daughter to her first job at Georgia Power, where she worked only a couple months before she found him picketing the Southern Company, Georgia Power's parent company, for purchasing coal from South African mines.

Lowery-Osborne, 45, said she left Georgia Power several years later, soon after joining her parents in the picket line at the Winn Dixie Stores supermarket chain, which also had been selling products from South Africa, which was boycotted for years because of its apartheid policies.

Her penchant for social activism was never required by her parents but rather a product of her upbringing, said Lowery-Osborne, who now runs her husband's medical practice while serving as treasurer of Clark Atlanta University's Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights.

''I hope it's not just a legacy to fill,'' she said. ''I hope it's a calling instilled from the way you have been brought up.''

n n n n n

Hip-hop became John Miles Lewis' political outlet of choice early in life.

He was born a generation after most of his peers in the civil rights community, and his childhood was full of secondhand memories of his father, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., featured in documentaries of 1960s student sit-ins and in photographs with civil rights figures long gone.

''He always tried to instill in me what the past really meant and how much the past affects now,'' the 27-year-old Lewis said.

His was a childhood of the 1980s, when hip-hop music, born in the streets, became a creative and political vehicle for black youth.

Lewis, who now writes and performs hip-hop under an independent label, said he composed his first rhyme in the third grade, pounding beats on the lunchroom tables and learning to breakdance to the songs of Sugar Hill Gang and Run DMC.

The elder Lewis wasn't immediately a fan of his son's new fascination until one day when he heard a track his son had written called ''Political Behavior'' and realized the music had a message.

''The majority has to deal with my father's past, his friends' past, the movement in itself,'' said the younger Lewis, who also cites inspiration from the teachings of Gandhi and Malcolm X.

The elder Lewis, who always had political aspirations for his only son, has come to support his artistic endeavors ''as long as he's making a contribution and helping sensitize and educate his generation.''

A political career isn't completely out of the question, though.

''If I ever did run, I would be about 35 or 40 or something like that,'' said the younger Lewis, who noted the strain of his father's busy schedule when he was growing up. ''I haven't ruled it out.''

Michael Julian Bond always had a taste for the activism his father had long been known for, but it was not initially welcomed.

Julian Bond, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and a Georgia legislator for 20 years before becoming chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1998, advised his son against pursuing elected office.

''He felt that politics is a dirty business and that ... a lot of people who were angry at him for different reasons would take it out on me,'' the younger Bond said. ''And some of it, I think is true.''

The 37-year-old former Atlanta city councilman recalled a failed run for the Georgia House several years ago, in which he lost some white voters who disliked his father's liberal politics.

''I don't think that it's fair, but at the same time, the reason why I use my whole name is because I think my father was treated unfairly,'' Bond said. ''I feel an obligation to uphold the positions that he took and a lot of his principles.''

Bond, a program director with the NAACP in Atlanta, said his foray into a political career of his own was a natural move.

''People say, 'Oh, you're riding on your father's coattails. ...,''' Bond said. ''If my father ran Chick Fil-A or Waldenbooks as a family business, people would expect me to go into the family business. It just so happens now that our family business is social activism.''

n n n n n

Fred Shuttlesworth Jr. grew up proudly wearing his name, made famous by a bold father who survived a bombing at their home and a vicious beating by a white mob angry with his attempts to integrate schools in Birmingham, Ala.

But, he added, ''I can't sit here and say nothing negative happened because of his name.''

The younger Shuttlesworth recalled one time when he was 10 and a white officer was stalking the neighborhood, looking for the culprit in a store robbery. The officer pulled the boy aside, pointed a gun in his face and asked his name.

''I was so embarrassed and uptight that I said I was Joe Smith,'' the 57-year-old said, believing his real name would have invited more harassment.

The children of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, often relied on tight family bonds to see them through trying times.

''It wasn't easy, but Daddy being a minister, he always taught us to have faith, that with God all things are possible,'' said Patricia Massengill, the eldest of four siblings.

Shuttlesworth's message of faith and family resonated with his son and three daughters, who all went on to become educators, as their parents had been, and who gather regularly to support their father, who's still active in the movement at the age of 82.

''My childhood was beautiful,'' Shuttlesworth Jr. said. ''It's a real blessing to have him make such important mark in history and still be here for us.''



CONTACT US

  • 150 Trading Bay Rd, Kenai, AK 99611
  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS