The daughter of a sharecropper, Lea Gilmore was 2 years old when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn.
Growing up in Baltimore, she said yesterday, the slain civil rights leader was merely someone "on the overhead projector" in class or in a textbook and remained little more than that until Gilmore became familiar with injustice. It drove home what King had stood for.
"Dr. King was so not a deity," Gilmore, a jazz and blues singer and civil-liberties activist, told an annual breakfast gathering held in King's memory at the Baltimore Convention Center. "He was a human being. He had foibles and yet he did so many great things."
Gilmore, a member of the Maryland Advisory Board to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said during a panel discussion that it was shameful for this nation to be engaged in a "trillion-dollar war" in Iraq while millions here go without health insurance and parts of the Gulf Coast remain devastated 2 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina. King, she said, would not have approved.
"If he knew what is happening in New Orleans right now," she said, "we'd all be marching."
But another panelist, Dante Wilson, founder of Baltimore's Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project, was uncertain of the value of marching in this day and age. He suggested that "a collection of minds," thinking alike and searching for answers to society's ills, might be more useful.
"We don't have relationships," Wilson said. "We have cliques."
The panel's moderator, WYPR's Marc Steiner, reminded the crowd that King was a true activist. "He believed in massive civil disobedience. It wasn't just about peace and love and helping your brothers and sisters."
The gathering, sponsored by the YMCA of Central Maryland, was designed to examine King's legacy and his impact on Baltimore.
Mayor Sheila Dixon wondered before the panel discussion whether Baltimore has made great strides since the riots that followed King's murder in 1968. She said scars from those events are still evident in blighted neighborhoods, and that the high homicide rate among young black males, pervasive HIV infection and the dropout rate of African-American high school students are all signs that King's lessons have not been fully learned.
"We face day to day so many issues of health that destroy our community," Dixon said. If King or President John F. Kennedy or Rosa Parks were to visit Baltimore today, the mayor asked, "Would they be excited about our achievements, or disappointed?"
Dr. Ben Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told of being the only African-American student in the eighth grade at Detroit's Wilson Junior High School, where fellow students threatened him and the faculty treated him indifferently.
"Teachers did not really expect things of me," said Carson, now one of Baltimore's leading surgeons. He said that when he won his grade's top award for academic achievement at the Detroit school, a teacher, instead of praising him, publicly chastised white students for allowing a black student to overtake them.
Thibault Manekin, former director of an international youth program now called PeacePlayers, said that 40 years after King's death, "We've got the opportunity to make a real difference because these are big fights."
In a ringing gospel voice, Gilmore concluded the gathering with what she said was King's favorite song, "If I Can Help Somebody, My Living Shall Not Be in Vain."