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Residents recall MLK's influence

January 17, 2009|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN -- Growing up in Hagerstown during the 1950s, Richard Moten's world was black and white -- literally.

It was called segregation.

"As an African-American, I knew where I could go and where I couldn't," he said. "There were separate restrooms and diners. And I was never allowed to go past the railroad tracks in the West End."

Moten said he was called names "24/7" and was told by a school teacher blacks would grow up to be nothing but janitors and maids.

"It's something that the younger generations reads about," he said. "But I experienced it."

Thankfully, he added, America turned the corner.

But without the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Moten believes change might not have happened.

That's why the local resident thought it was important Saturday morning to ignore the bitter cold weather and attend a program that honored the late civil rights leader, who would have marked his 80th birthday this month.

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Hosted by the Contemporary School for the Arts & Gallery, the event allowed ordinary people to reflect on how King's words and deeds have affected their lives.

"We do this every year," gallery owner Ron Lytle said. "I think it's very important to honor Dr. King and to make sure we're all connected -- past and future. Many young people don't fully understand the civil rights movement, except for what they read in school books. This is an opportunity to hear from their elders and embrace his dream of equality."

Moten said he attended the event last year and participates in similar programs as often as possible.

"Dr. King gave me inspiration, motivation and perseverance to be the best I can be," he said. "This is a small way to honor him."

Moten said this week will be especially important to him, with not only the celebration of King's birthday, but the inauguration of the country's first black president.

"I never thought I would live to see it," he said. "It's heaven sent. I bet Dr. King and John and Robert Kennedy are looking down, applauding and smiling."

For those who see King's birthday as a black holiday, they've missed the larger significance of his life, Jackie Kirtley said.

"People can't think that way," she said. "He was trying to erase discrimination for everybody. He wanted all of us to embrace the values of fairness and equality."

Kirtley attended the program with her friend, Mary Oliver. Both women are from Ennis, Mont., and were enjoying a brief visit to Hagerstown on their way to Barack Obama's inauguration. The trip was a Christmas gift from Oliver to Kirtley.

"We read about this program honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and decided to stop by," Kirtley said. "He was such an incredible man and died much too soon for all the wrong reasons. We may not have Mr. Obama as our president if it weren't for the efforts of Dr. King and other brave men and women in the civil rights movement."

Hagerstown resident Casey-Mae Fleischer recalled King's struggles in Selma, Ala.; and Thomas Segar, also of Hagerstown, reflected on the slain civil rights leader's life, noting "I'm fascinated by a man who led a path that had never been blazed before. What is it about him that gave him the passion and skill to do what he did? It makes me examine my own life."

The program also included a children's workshop by Diane Hamilton based on the book "I Have a Dream."

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