Memories of King's lessons Protege: Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. once benefited firsthand from the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


The eminent Baltimore heart surgeon Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. stretches out his hand to show a light, thin line, the scar from an old cut.

"I don't know if you can see it," he says. "It was so clean."

It's not just the odd mark from some forgotten injury. It's a souvenir of hate from his youth in Montgomery, Ala. It's also a reminder of the lessons that Watkins, now a distinguished professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, carries with him from his days in Montgomery with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the 68th anniversary of King's birth, Watkins will hold his annual memorial to the late civil rights leader, whose legacy of peaceful protest in demand of social justice has made him a venerated figure across the globe. Back in Montgomery of the late 1950s and early '60s, Watkins was among those first to act on King's teachings.

Simply going to the movies was a dangerous adventure for an African-American youth at that time, when new laws against discrimination were being passed against a background of fire hoses, attack dogs, bombings and murder. The young Levi Watkins and some of his friends decided to test those laws at the Paramount Theater in downtown Montgomery.

"They did let us in -- the front," he says. "They used to let us in the back. They were playing that movie 'Gone With the Wind.' I guess we cheered at the wrong part when they were getting Atlanta. "Man, when we came out of that movie, all the white guys circled us. There were only four of us, about 20 of them. And they beat the hell out of us.

"My first cut," he says. "Those boys got the razor blades out. Didn't know I was cut."

It was one of many times that Watkins, one of a group of teen-age boys who met often with the young pastor at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, would have to brace himself to practice the principles King taught.

"We had to control our anger and subject ourselves to his concept of nonviolence," Watkins says. "You know that's telling a young person a lot. To get your butt beat and turn around and don't do anything about it.

"But we subscribed to that," he says. "To this day I have never owned a gun or a knife or anything, although I could have used them a few times."

As King led the Montgomery bus boycott that launched him to international renown and sparked the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early '60s, he would point Watkins and others in his church along their own path to survival and success.

"Spirituality," Watkins says, "I want to use that word, spirituality, and principles of humanity were among the first things I learned from him. He touched me and all the other guys of the church."

The Watkins family were members of the Dexter Avenue church, where King, fresh from theology school at Boston University, preached. Levi was also a member of the Crusaders, a youth group King met with almost every Sunday.

Watkins recalls his time with the young preacher with great fondness and a kind of reverent nostalgia. King, he says, was modest and unassuming, and easy to talk with.

"Oh God yes!" he says. "He had a great sense of humor. He was very easy to talk to, very amiable and funny. He was a young man. He had finished his graduate stuff but he hadn't finished his dissertation."

King was 25 when he arrived in Montgomery in 1954; 39 when he was assassinated in 1968.

Watkins is himself easy to talk to, sharp, witty, amiable, but with strong convictions. He's fiftyish, youthful, long and lean in his scrubs and lab coat. He starts this conversation about 7: 30 a.m. before a morning in surgery.

Until King came, Watkins says, Dexter Avenue was a quiet little church, a handsome, restrained brick Gothic structure, catty-corner from the Capitol of Alabama, where George Wallace reigned as the field marshal of segregation.

"And we were not the activist church, in the sense of hitting racism. We were activist in terms of spirituality. But what he brought in was this racism element, dealing with [racists] collectively, as well as spiritually."

In his meetings with the Crusaders club, though, King emphasized education, not agitation.

"We never talked about activism in there," Watkins says. "I guess it was about keeping us in school, keeping us from losing ourselves, growing up in that environment of gross primary racism."

These were also literally the explosive years of the civil rights struggles. King's home was bombed. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy's home and church were bombed; a bomb exploded at the home of E. D. Nixon, another leader of the bus boycott. Snipers fired at integrated buses. A shotgun blast ripped into King's home.

But, remarkably, Watkins says: "Fear was not a central part of things."

"I think one of the powerful messages that came from King was love," he says. "And that goes back to that humanity. I think that when you're rooted deeply in that you don't have fear. He didn't seem to be scared of anything."

That absence of fear was perhaps one reason Montgomery became the cradle of the modern civil rights struggle, when Rosa Parks was arrested for declining to give her seat on a city bus to a white man. King and Abernathy led the bus boycott, along with Nixon, a former official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Jo Ann Robinson of the Women's Political Council.

King was not even the first choice as leader, Watkins says. But he was the youngest, just in town, available and he was probably the most articulate. Watkins thinks King was probably surprised by "the factors that came together" to make him a household name.

"There was the need. There was the time, the articulation, the man," Watkins says. "I think God brought all those things together."

Watkins left Montgomery when he was 18 to attend Tennessee State University from 1962 to 1966. He became president of the student body. His father, Levi Watkins Sr., later president of Alabama State University, had graduated from the same school.

"Those were the years of turmoil," he says. "Two things were going on: Vietnam and civil rights. So that's when I started leading my own demonstrations, using all of the things I had seen Dr. King do, all the same techniques."

King had left Montgomery in 1959 as a world-famous figure many compared to Gandhi and Thoreau. Ahead lay Albany and Birmingham, the March on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Nobel Peace Prize, and death by an assassin's bullet.

"The sermon I remember the most," Watkins says, "was on the Sunday he got up and told us he was leaving Dexter. He was talking about being 'called to serve.' We didn't know that at the end, what he was about to tell us was that he was being called to serve somewhere else."

Watkins recalls the moment as "a big downer."

"We've had a few downers," he says, his voice dropping. "The assassination was a big downer."

Watkins was finishing classes for the day at Vanderbilt University when he heard that King had been shot. He remembers waiting what seemed to be an eternity until a friend called from Atlanta and confirmed that King was dead.

He was the only African-American student at Vanderbilt. He had integrated the medical school and there still was no other African-American student, nor faculty member, on campus. The price of integration for him was isolation.

"When he was killed, I just stayed in my room. I was full of anger, hated every white person in America.

"Knew that was wrong," he says, "hating was wrong, because of what he taught me and what my parents taught me. I knew that was not the feeling to have. I just knew that."

It didn't help that his fellow students seemed unmoved by King's death, or that while he mourned, alone, the poster of King on his dormitory room door was defaced. But King's precepts, he says, helped him carry on.

"Once again you revert back to the humanity and the spirituality, those were the best things. Those were the roots I got from him."

They are roots Watkins has planted at Hopkins, where in 1970 he became the first black resident in surgery and later "the first black chief resident in anything."

"But listen," he says, "those 'firsts' are no tribute to me. I don't like that 'first' mentality. If they're a tribute to anything, they're a tribute to the need to serve."

In 1980, Watkins initiated the annual King commemoration program at Hopkins. Today, Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP and former U.S. congressman from Baltimore, will celebrate King's birthday with a noon speech at the hospital's Turner Auditorium. Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III, Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Harry Belafonte have taken part in earlier programs.

Coretta Scott King, who remains a good friend, not long ago sent Watkins an inscribed copy of the first volume of King's papers "as a token of my deep gratitude for your commitment and support of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr."

"I wanted you to have this volume," she wrote, "for you too have been 'called to serve.' "

Pub Date: 1/15/97

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