To human rights activist Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a civil rights leader.
"To me, he was a Jesus figure," she said.
More than 100 people braved chilly afternoon winds and filled an auditorium at the Enoch Pratt Free Library yesterday to hear Adams recall memories of King from her work in the 1960s with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi.
While delivering the library's 25th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, Adams, 79, wove spiritual and inspirational songs with personal vignettes that exemplified King's humility and leadership.
"I remember him as not only being a great orator but a great listener," she said. "He never became so full of himself that he couldn't or wouldn't take time to listen to people who sought his ear."
She said that while King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech was important, he should not be defined only by that speech but also by his countless other achievements. But, she added, "thank God somebody had a dream at that particular moment of our history."
Adams, who lives in Petersburg, Va., is a retired Virginia State University campus minister.
Referring to King as an emulator of Christ, Adams challenged the audience to reflect on his legacy and then reflect on their lives. "Ask, 'Am I about the business that I was created to be about?'"
Many in attendance joined Adams in singing verses to spiritual and inspirational songs and, at one point during her lecture, many called out names of other deceased civil rights leaders.
Adams left the audience with a warning and a question.
"My generation is fast leaving the planet," she said. "Will you continue the campaign?"
Emily Mudede and Lillian Sithole of Zimbabwe said Adams' lecture forced them to think of their native country.
"It applies to everyone in the world," Mudede said. "The speech was challenging people to go into their community and help others, so we are challenged to help others and not to think only of ourselves."
Mudede's husband, Cecil Mudede, said Adams presented two sides to King's life. "She really showed that he was a vulnerable person but at the same time united people and was very powerful."
Tom Saunders said he was not only impressed by her account of King's legacy but agreed with Adams' comparisons of King with Jesus.
"I've never experienced a religious figure that showed that kind of commitment," he said of King. "They talk Christ-like but I've never seen that commitment demonstrated."
Lindsey Johnson of Gaithersburg said the lecture was an eye-opener from a historical and spiritual perspective.
"It's interesting to hear from someone who worked with Dr. King," he said after the speech. "I never really thought of Dr. King following in the footsteps of Jesus."