Sherry Frank gave this speech at the “Women: Soul of the Nation” lunch June 26 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the King Center.
When I come to The King Center, I feel a flood of warm memories. During my 25 years as the Southeast area director of the American Jewish Committee, I often felt that my car was on auto-drive to this special place.
Whether I was working with Mrs. King on the myriad of details around King Week or the countless meetings of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, The King Center was ground zero for energy, planning, bridge building and in a special way, for working towards Dr. King’s dream of the beloved community.
As early as 1983, I was here wishing Mrs. King good luck as she left for D.C. for the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. In the years that followed, along with members of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, I joined the march in 1988. In 1993 we funded 30 students to participate and I worked closely with Mrs. King as she asked me to co-chair the Atlanta mobilization for the march.
After an intense week of planning, I remember the enormous crowd gathered at The King Center and the numerous busses that took us to Forsyth County for the Mobilization Against Fear and Intimidation. Mrs. King’s hand was in all the details. It was a frightful time to march with Klansmen in robes, carrying hateful signs on the side of the road, national guards alongside of us and planes overhead protecting us.
In 1984 when my community was responding to Minister Louis Farrakhan’s vile statements calling Judaism a gutter religion and Israel an outlaw state, Mrs. King joined the Black-Jewish Coalition press conference and denounced these statements. She was a consistent and strong voice against all forms of bigotry and prejudice.
In 1988 when Mohammed Massarwa came to Atlanta as Israel’s first Arab consul general, Mrs. King graciously hosted a reception for him at The King Center. Her warmth and commitment to peace and understanding was unwavering. At critical moments, she stood up for Israel and joined the AJC efforts to urge the UN to treat Israel more fairly.
I have a wonderful picture of Mrs. King with Lillian Lewis, Ingrid Saunders Jones and Elaine and Miles Alexander at a Black-Jewish Coalition sponsored book signing with Congressman John Lewis when we received copies of his first book, “Walking With The Wind.”
This sacred place, The King Center, was home to so many significant events – all with the loving support of its founder:
•Demonstrating against violence when the gay community was under attack
•Providing space to honor Mahatma Gandhi
•Filling a gift shop with material about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. We used Christine King Farris’ books when Coalition members held “teach-ins” in the Atlanta public schools and Jewish day schools during King Week
•Participating in Coalition forums with important guest speakers to foster understanding about issues varying from changes in South Africa to advocacy on behalf of the King holiday.
•Hosting members of the national Rabbinic Assembly in 1987
I treasure most of all the personal times I felt Mrs. King’s special friendship:
•The call I received to join her on election night when Martin Luther King III was running for Fulton County Commissioner
•The books she gave me when I told her I was going to visit activists in the former Soviet Union. She autographed three and asked me to give them to women whose husbands were in jail. In Riga, Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), they all were touched and knew the story of Dr. King.
•The annual phone calls I received, requesting a rabbi to read from the Old Testament during the interfaith service on the King holiday. She was so respectful and inclusive of all faith traditions.
I felt the impact of the work Mrs. King did in preserving Dr. King’s work and words in a personal way in 1988 when Soviet Jewish activist Natan Sharansky was in Atlanta. He wanted to hear Dr. King’s words, so I arranged for him to come to The King Center.
In a small executive conference room, with a monitor up on the wall, we listened to a video of Dr. King speaking. All of a sudden, in a surreal moment, Sharansky started talking as if he was speaking to Dr. King, acknowledging that he felt the same way, locked up in prison, yet spiritually free in conscience and soul. The documents and history that strengthen our heroes have been preserved in this important place.