A suggestion for Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.: Next year, get Betty Winston Baye to deliver the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration ceremony.
Watkins was the brains behind the first MLK commemoration in 1982. Over the years, keynote speakers have included King's widow, Coretta Scott King, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, singer-actor-activist Harry Belafonte, author Maya Angelou, former NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Kweisi Mfume and actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
This year's keynote speaker was to be the Rev. Al Sharpton, who might be considered more controversial than the people mentioned above, and not by just a tad, either. But Sharpton didn't show. Watkins said that on the drive down to Washington, D.C., to pick Sharpton up from the airport, his driver encountered some rough weather. The driver suggested they might want to call the airport to see exactly when Sharpton's flight would land. (We have to assume this was Dulles Airport in Virginia. I know Sharpton wouldn't even dream of flying into Ronald Reagan International Airport in Southeast D.C.)
"His flight was canceled," Watkins told those who had assembled at the Turner Auditorium on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Watkins, who's the associate dean of postdoctoral programs and a professor of cardiology at JHUSM, showed he has a flair for improvisation - and pinch hitting.
He got Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who had attended the ceremony, to make a few impromptu remarks. Then Watkins gave the keynote address. Watkins is not a man who's going to let glitches - either minor or major - stop the show.
Actually, the glitches started with the written program for the commemoration, with Sharpton's biography.
"One of America's most outspoken civil rights leaders," the bio began, "Reverend Al Sharpton ran for mayor of New York in 1997 and was a Democratic candidate for president in 2004."
That's true, but there's more to the story. An article that first ran in The Village Voice alleged that Republican hatchet man Roger Stone gave money to Sharpton's campaign. In exchange, Sharpton let Stone "advise" and exercise some control over the good reverend's campaign. Then, after taking money and advice from a Republican, Sharpton showed up at the Democratic convention that same year bashing Republicans.
Believe me, when I hand out my Chutzpah Awards for the decade in 2010, Sharpton is going to win all 10 places.
"Known for his fiery oratory," the bio continued, "Sharpton speaks against alleged racial injustice, as in the case of Sean Bell, who was shot to death by New York City police in November of 2006."
Bell was a young black man who was leaving a strip club with some friends after they thought there was going to be "beef," a fight involving at best fists, at worst knives or guns.
As Bell and his friends were driving away, a plainclothes cop, who some witnesses said never identified himself as a police officer, yelled to the driver of the car, "Yo, my man, let me holler at you."
Not exactly the words you want to hear from a civilian when you're trying to escape a beef.
The driver didn't stop and several plainclothes cops - black, white and Hispanic - opened fire, killing Bell. Based on that scenario, there's no evidence that Bell's death is a "racial injustice." There's evidence aplenty that Bell's death is the result of overzealous, incompetent and egregiously stupid policing. But a death because of overzealous, incompetent and egregiously stupid policing does not a racial injustice make. Even Sharpton hasn't called Bell's death a case of "racial injustice."
The glitches in Sharpton's bio - and the baggage Sharpton carries - didn't stop Watkins from inviting the reverend as this year's keynote speaker. The truth is, Watkins had a darned good reason for inviting Sharpton.
"I'm talking about the vile language about women of color," Watkins said in his keynote address. "And it seems not everybody is offended. That's one of the reasons I turned to Reverend Sharpton."
Watkins is talking about Don Imus calling members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed 'hos." He was also talking about similar language heard in rap music. Sharpton has been a harsh critic of both. In fact, he criticized the rappers before he criticized Imus.
But do black women need Sharpton to defend them? Baye is a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She said while she was incensed by Imus' comments, she was more incensed that the media asked Sharpton and Jackson for their reactions, and ignored black female commentators completely.
If Watkins still wants someone to speak on this issue next year, he should get Baye. Trust me, Doc: You will not be disappointed.