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Reluctant Watkins Saves the Day

  Levi Watkins pinch-hits for the Rev. Al Sharpton. The program ended with surprise “Ideal” diversity awards to Hopkins Hospital President Ron Peterson and Vice Dean for Faculty Janice Clements.

The morning of the 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration began in a fog, first outside—forcing a flight cancellation for the keynote speaker, the Rev. Al Sharpton—then internally, as Levi Watkins and his committee scrambled to reshape the program.

Three hours later, following stirring renditions by choral group Unified Voices, Watkins, who was Hopkins’ first African American chief resident in surgery, sauntered on stage to a standing ovation. “God has given me the opportunity to speak off the top of my head,” he said to an audience of 750 in Turner Auditorium. The professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean of postdoctoral programs has organized the annual event since its inception and was keynote speaker in 1998.

Before delivering remarks he’d penned on the fly that morning, Watkins asked invited guest and friend Sen. Barbara Mikulski to say a few words. The longtime Hopkins champion praised Watkins’ annual tribute to Martin Luther King’s dream of equality and thanked employees for making Hopkins “the #1 healing institution in the USA,” reserving her highest kudos for the eight Community Service Award recipients. Mikulski also promised to help secure more scholarships and debt forgiveness for those pursuing careers in health and human services.

Returning to the podium, Watkins decried the recent resurfacing of “some symbols of the nightmare.

“Dr. King is looking down on us and is happy with the progress we’ve made, but he’s not happy about the vile language being used to describe women of color,” he said, alluding to racial slurs in mainstream media and the music industry.  “And it seems not everyone’s offended. That’s one reason I turned to Rev. Sharpton. We all have to be offended.”

Quoting poet Maya Angelou, Watkins concluded, “We are the true wonders of the world; Martin Luther King was a true wonder of the world. It is this wonder that will make us as powerful in the area of humanity as we are in medicine. But diversity must be equitable and meaningful.”

            —Judy Minkove



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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