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Residents share memories of Martin Luther King

January 13, 2007|By MARLO BARNHART

Had he lived, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be celebrating his 78th birthday Monday.

Although the civil rights leader's life was cut short 39 years ago, an assassin's bullet failed to quiet his message or stop his mission to see that "all men are created equal" was more than just a phrase in the Declaration of Independence.

"I grew up in Hagerstown, and you couldn't go a lot of places around here," said 89-year-old Isaac Doleman, referring to his early years in Washington County.

Reflecting on King's influence on his own life and life in general, Doleman said he believes the civil rights pioneer's spirit is very much alive in the 21st century.

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"His teachings are apparent today, both in Hagerstown and in the country," Doleman said. "King had his own mind and his thoughts of not letting people tell him where he could go."

While many agree that racial equality has come a long way since King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech, James Tolbert said that is just the tip of the iceberg.

"King's life has had an effect on women's rights, the rights of immigrants and the whole political climate as we know it," said Tolbert, 74, of Charles Town, W.Va., and the president of the West Virginia NAACP since 1986.

"I attended segregated schools," he said. "When I went into the military, integration was just starting there. I've known segregated lunch counters."

While pleased with the strides made related to King's leadership, Tolbert said he is somewhat concerned about the future of the equal rights movement.

"There is still a lot of work to do and so few people to do it," Tolbert said. "We need young people as well as those who remember the sacrifices."

Marching for equality

Russell Williams, a former member of the Washington County Board of Education, said he participated in both the March on Washington in 1963 ? when King made his "I Have a Dream" speech ? and the march commemorating the 30th anniversary of that march.

"I carried the same picket sign at both," Williams said. The text of the sign reads, "Higher minimum wages, coverage for all workers."

Williams, 64, recalled that his 1964 University of Rochester (N.Y.) yearbook didn't have any black faces in it.

When he entered the master's degree program at Catholic University in Washington, Williams found himself doing his student teaching at predominantly black schools.

"Our efforts then were to bring education up to some kind of level for all," Williams said.

Williams said he never doubted King's sincerity and commitment to nonviolence.

Have things changed much in Hagerstown since the King years?

"I think Hagerstown is coming along," Williams said.

Richard Strohl also was at the March on Washington in 1963, then as a Protestant clergyman from Silver Spring, Md.

"I was very scared because there were so many people, but it evolved into a big picnic," Strohl said. He said he spent much of the day standing about 200 feet from the podium where King and others spoke.

Now, more than 40 years later, Strohl said he feels that in the 30 years he spent working in the human resources field, he was strengthened by the ideals he learned and lived by throughout his adult life.

"My work was for fairness and opportunity, always coming down on the side of racial progress," he said.

'Nothing can stop me'

Shanon Wolf has worked in the employment field for 29 years. Currently the administrator of the Western Maryland Job Center, Wolf said she admires King for his vision of a better world.

"That vision took hold, and grew and expanded into other areas such as the disabled and women," said Wolf, referring to the strides in equal employment opportunities that were related to the civil rights movement.

In her early days on the job, "We did a lot of outreach into the community," Wolf said, noting that it wasn't easy at first.

"It's all a matter of course now, and that's encouraging," she said.

A Hagerstown native, Wolf attended Frostburg State University from 1969-73, where she said minorities were involved in all activities and in the dormitories.

Whytne Brooks is a 21-year-old senior at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She is optimistic about the future of racial equality, and she said she owes that in part to King's legacy.

"I have the key to open doors," the Hagerstown resident said. "The problem is the reaction of some people when I open that door."

Brooks said she has encountered people who seem amazed when she tells them she is wearing a Yale sweat shirt because she actually goes to that school.

"I tell people pleasantly because it's not good to get places by offending people," Brooks said.

Although young, Brooks recognizes that the struggle is far from over.

"It's a hard habit to shake," Brooks said of racial inequality. "It's still latent ? in some areas more than others."

But as she completes her studies in anthropology and explores the prospect of a law career, Brooks said she is confident that King's struggles will help her overcome hers.

"Nothing can stop me," she said.

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