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Famed Actress Salutes Martin Luther King

Cicely Tyson with Levi Watkins.

She is a human rights activist and arts advocate, but when she appeared as keynote speaker at this year’s King tribute, Cicely Tyson left little doubt that she is first and foremost an actress. Part performance, part talk, Tyson’s remarks evoked themes of hope and dreams and wove together parts of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech with the poetry of Langston Hughes and others.

“‘Look to this day!’” she began, quoting from an ancient Indian poem. “‘For yesterday is but a dream/ and tomorrow is only a vision/ But today, well lived, makes every yesterday/ a dream of happiness/ And every tomorrow a vision of hope.’”

For 22 years, employees from all corners of the medical campus and beyond have been coming together for the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, one of the country’s oldest observances of the slain civil rights leader’s birthday. This year, 500 people gathered in Turner Auditorium on Jan. 16 to pay tribute to King as well as to hear the electrifying music of Unified Voices, the all-volunteer choir drawn from the Hopkins family, and honor employees who, like King, have dedicated themselves to serving their communities.

Organized by Levi Watkins, the cardiac surgeon and associate dean, the event has showcased giants of the civil rights movement such as Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, literary lights like Maya Angelou, and celebrities such as Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. Tyson, 72, has starred in films like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and Sounder. She is also active in national and international human rights and arts organizations.

“You don’t need permission to dream ... and listen to the heart’s melodies,” she told her audience. King, she said, “stood up to what he called the iron feet of oppression,” and she asked if on this, the 75th anniversary of his birth, his dream had yet come true.

Suddenly, her voice dropped down several registers, into the unmistakable, raspy whisper of the former slave she made famous, Miss Jane Pittman. “‘So boy, don’t you turn back./ Don’t you set down on the steps/ Cause you finds it’s kinder hard,’” Tyson admonished, concluding with lines from Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son.” “‘Don’t you fall now/ For I’se still goin’, honey/ I’se still climbin’/ And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.’”

—Anne Bennett Swingle



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