After Arizona shooting, MLK celebration a chance to reflect

Like the rest of the nation, Roslyn Brock was horrified to learn of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 injured.

And she joins the entire country in closely following the daily progress of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she recovers from a gunshot wound to the head.

But Brock, an Elkridge resident and chairwoman of the NAACP's national board of directors, has more than an average citizen's interest in the moving story of a public servant's life critically compromised by a lone gunman who opened fire at a meet-and-greet event.

As she prepares to speak at Howard County's 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration on Sunday, Jan. 16, Brock offered her perspective as the congresswoman's close friend on the influential role that inflammatory — as well as inspirational — political discourse can play in shaping people's mindsets.

The call for restraint in public dialogue and the politically charged finger-pointing that have swept the country after Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Giffords to protest her views "certainly brings to light" the focus of the message Brock will deliver to mark the civil rights leader's birthday, she said.

"What Gabby means to us speaks to our connectiveness," said Brock, who met Giffords when they were leadership fellows with the National Commission on U.S.-China Relations from 2003 to 2005. Brock's new friend hadn't entered politics then, but was president of her family's tire company, she said.

"There are only six degrees of separation between us, so, if harm comes to one it comes to all," she said.

While Brock advocates "dialing down the rhetoric and vitriolic language" that have become increasingly commonplace in the U.S., she also emphasized her belief in citizens' rights to free speech and to peaceably assemble as well as to bear arms.

"In politics, and in life in general, our words have the power of life and death and we must choose them carefully," said the health care administrator, who is only the fourth woman to head the board of the century-old civil rights organization.

As a Florida native who grew up in Fort Washington, Brock, 45, chose Howard County as her new home five years after her husband died in 1996 and she realized she longed to return to the region where she grew up.

And as vice president of health care advocacy and government relations at Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville and a member of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., Brock felt Elkridge would provide the best location for commuting to work and to the church she started attending 37 years ago, she said. She is also a licensed Baptist minister.

The fact that the county's Human Rights Commission continues to honor King's memory nearly 42 years after his assassination in 1968 speaks to the shared principles of equality embodied by Columbia founder James Rouse, she said.

That philosophy was one of the attributes that attracted her to Howard County, along with its diversity and top-rated quality of life.

"I don't believe in quotas or in cherry picking, but I do believe in quality representation through multiple voices," she said. "We need to find room at the table for the full spectrum of the populace and that will make us a better community."

The meaning behind the continued existence of the county's celebration, which this year has a theme of "One Dream, One World," can be viewed two ways, she said.

"Our need to discuss Dr. King's principles is a testament to the fact that we're not 'there' yet, but it's also a sign that we're still on the path to finding our own individual dreams for our community, the nation and the world," she said.

Nowadays, the nation's burgeoning population of immigrants is at the same place as African-Americans were back then and King's words can be equally applied to a Hispanic child, for example, Brock said.

"Dr. King gave a speech about communities coming together. In tough economic times throughout history, like the Great Depression and 9/11, we have historically pulled together as a people. We wanted to do more for one another and we held tight to what defined us as a nation," she said.

"But something has happened. I don't know where we've gone off-course, and I don't want to believe President Obama's election had anything to do with it, but the throwing around of hate speech has really heightened," Brock said.

The celebration will mark a return to an emphasis on the spoken word in lieu of an expansive block of performances by cultural groups, said C. Vernon Gray, administrator of the Howard County Human Rights Commission, which sponsors the annual event.

"I have always liked to hear Dr. King's words, and not just his 'I Have a Dream' speech," he said. "And this is what we have learned that the audience wants — to listen to the words and be inspired."

Gray, who served on the Howard County Council for 20 years, echoed Brock's criticism of negative political discourse and its potential impact on listeners.

"I'm surprised by the type of language and imagery being used in politics today," he said. "You'd think that we had progressed further than that and that politicians would want to be more responsible about uniting and leading us. We have no need for discussions with words that have double meaning."

Like Brock, Gray sees a correlation between behavior and the economy.

"In tough economic times when the pie is shrinking, animosities can develop," he said. "We need people that speak to our better selves, as language can certainly push people over the edge."

If you go

What: The county's 26th annual Martin Luther King Holiday Celebration

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16; reception followed by 3 p.m. program

Where: Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Details: Speech by Roslyn Brock, two performances, and announcement of the winners of an essay contest, which drew 400 entries by middle- and high-school students.

The program is free and open to the public, but canned food items will be collected for the Howard County Food Bank in keeping with the "Call to Service" initiative instituted by President Barack Obama last year.

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