January 20, 2013

King was ‘extremely controversial’ during his life

Rachel Brown

— Nwandi Lawson never had to drink from a water fountain designated for colored people. She never attended a racially segregated school. No one was mean to her growing up simply because she was black.

It’s a different world for people today who remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the civil rights movement, she said, and because of that different world, it’s easier to forget all the work he did in his life outside of his “I have a dream” speech.

Those efforts include his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, his spiritual leadership on topics that are more personal than social and his efforts to fight for people other than minorities, she said. Lawson highlighted some of those issues as she spoke to about 80 people gathered at First Baptist Church of Dalton Saturday night for a banquet honoring King’s legacy. The banquet also raised money to cover expenses for this weekend’s activities put on by a local committee that oversees Dalton’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

Joan McGovern, one of the members of the committee, said Lawson is a friend of hers and a fellow native Californian.

“She’s the first woman to speak in Dalton (at the event),” McGovern said. “It’s history being made in the Dalton area.”

Lawson is the president and CEO of Reve Productions and has worked for PBS and CNN. She has hosted and produced Georgia Public Broadcasting’s coverage of the Georgia Legislature for several years.

“I’m part of the first generation of African-American people born in America who saw the full benefits of the civil rights movement,” she said.

King was 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968. Despite the reverence given to him today, he wasn’t so widely regarded in his time, Lawson emphasized.

“At the time of his ministry, Dr. King was extremely controversial,” she said.

After a speech denouncing American involvement in the Vietnam conflict for taking lives on both sides and resources that he said could be used toward fighting poverty, an article in the Washington Post declared he had “diminished his usefulness to his cause,” Lawson said. Others said he was beginning to “dilute the movement,” she said, as his focus shifted from the civil rights movement to human rights.

“And still he continued to do the work,” she said. “The barbs were coming in from all sides.”

King, she said, also spoke in favor of universal education, believed that science and religion operate in harmony rather than opposition (“Science investigates, religion interprets...” he said), and preached that, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Celebration of the MLK holiday continues today with an Ecumenical Service at 4 p.m. at Shiloh Baptist Church sponsored by the Concerned Clergy of Greater Whitfield County. Paul David Smith, executive principal at Howard High School in Chattanooga, will be the guest speaker.

McGovern’s husband, Al, who is also a member of the committee that organizes activities, said it’s important for younger people to learn about who King was.

“It’s a teaching process, it’s a reflective process and it’s not just the black community, which I think is too often thought of as being his only concern,” Al McGovern said. “He’s been described as a man of all people and for all people.”

On Monday at 9 a.m., there will be a memorial wreath laying at the intersection of Walnut Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A community prayer breakfast at the Mack Gaston Community Center begins at 10 a.m. Monday. There is no charge for the breakfast, and everyone is welcome to the wreath-laying ceremony.