The featured guest and keynote speaker for Johns
Hopkins' 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday
remembrance, an event that takes place this week, will be
Maya Angelou. The celebrated poet, playwright and civil
rights activist joins an impressive list of past speakers
that includes Harry Belafonte Jr., the Rev. Ralph
Abernathy, James Earl Jones, Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover,
Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.
Levi Watkins, founder of the Martin Luther King Jr.
Commemoration Celebration and chair of its committee, said
that it's hard to believe how quickly the event's first 25
years have passed.
Watkins, a pioneer in the field of cardiac surgery and
an active participant in the civil rights movement himself,
said that he conceived the idea for the King commemoration
as he was headed to Harvard to be the keynote speaker for
its annual tribute to the civil rights leader, who was
assassinated in 1968.
"Here I was traveling to another school's King
celebration, and Johns Hopkins did not have one," he said.
"Right there on the plane I decided that I would dedicate
myself to do whatever necessary to make sure we had one,
The event aims to celebrate not only King the man but
also his living legacy and struggles.
"We are still struggling for diversity, still
struggling with war, still struggling for economic
equality," said Watkins, a professor of surgery and
associate dean for postdoctoral affairs at the School of
Medicine. "Unfortunately, all of those things still hold
true today. So, we should honor him but also bring to light
what there still is to struggle for."
A native of Alabama who knew King and many others tied
to the civil rights movement, Watkins was the first
African-American to be admitted to and graduate from
Vanderbilt's School of Medicine, and was the first black
chief resident in cardiac surgery at The Johns Hopkins
Hospital. Among a long list of achievements, he performed
the world's first human implantation of the automatic
Watkins also has been a champion of diversity and
equality here at Johns Hopkins.
Begun in 1982, the Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King
Jr. Commemoration honors the Nobel Peace Prize winner's
legacy of nonviolent activism and community service. This
year's event will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. on
Friday, Jan. 19, in Turner Auditorium on the East Baltimore
campus and will be broadcast to several other university
and health system locations.
In choosing this year's keynote speaker, Watkins said
he wanted to bring in a dynamic, powerful and emotional
speaker who could touch upon the event's themes of
diversity and peace. Watkins said he found all the
qualities he was looking for in Maya Angelou.
Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary
black literature, Angelou has authored 12 best-selling
books and numerous magazine articles, earning her Pulitzer
Prize and National Book Award nominations. A true
Renaissance woman, Angelou has been a poet, historian,
author, journalist, actress, playwright, civil rights
activist, producer and director.
Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Angelou
was raised in segregated rural Arkansas and began her
career in drama and dance, using the professional name Maya
Angelou, a combination of her childhood nickname and her
married surname, Angelos.
She later moved to New York, where she met and married
her second husband, a South African freedom fighter. In
1960, the couple moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she was
editor of The Arab Observer, the only English-language news
weekly in the Middle East. In Ghana, she was feature editor
of The African Review and taught at the University of
Ghana. It was there that she met Malcolm X and earnestly
began her civil rights involvement.
In 1964, she returned to the United States and at the
request of Martin Luther King Jr. became the northern
coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership
Since the late 1960s, Angelou has dedicated herself to
her writing. She was among the first African-American women
to hit the best-seller lists, with I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings, a chronicle of her life up to the age of 16.
Published in 1970, the book was greeted with great critical
and commercial success and was later turned into a
television special. Her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me
a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, was nominated for the
In 1993, Angelou became the second poet in United
States history to write and recite an original work for a
presidential inauguration, that of Bill Clinton. The piece,
On the Pulse of Morning, garnered her wide recognition and
later earned her a Grammy Award for best spoken-word
In the film industry, Angelou has been a groundbreaker
for black women. In addition to hundreds of appearances on
television and in film, she has written and produced
several prize-winning documentaries, including
Afro-Americans in the Arts, a PBS special for which she
received the Golden Eagle Award. She was nominated for Emmy
Awards for her acting in Roots and for her
Pulitzer-nominated screenplay Georgia, Georgia, which was
the first by a black woman to be filmed.
Today, Angelou continues to write and lectures
throughout the United States and abroad. In 1991, she was
named a lifetime professor of American Studies at Wake
Forest University in North Carolina.
Friday's celebration also will include a memorial
tribute to King's wife, civil rights pioneer Coretta Scott
King, who passed away last January, and the 15th annual
Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards ceremony,
in which 10 Hopkins employees will be honored for
demonstrating through community service the spirit of
volunteerism and citizenship that characterized King's
Being recognized from the university are Allison
Barlow, SPH; Matthew Haag, SoN; Shawneen Kelley and
Kristina Obom, both of KSAS; and Marvina Wright, SoM.
Health system honorees are Sharon Baylis, Janet Hicks,
Monica Maxwell and Anita McFarlane, all of JHH; and
Jackqueline Meadows, Johns Hopkins HealthCare.
The Unified Voices Choir, a gospel group whose ranks
include Hopkins staff and community members, will provide
musical entertainment beginning at 11:30 a.m.
Those unable to attend can view the event on JHH
Patient Channel 54 or via closed-circuit television in Hurd
Hall and Tilghman Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus,
the Asthma and Allergy Auditorium at Bayview, the Green
Room at Mount Washington, the third-floor conference room
at 901 S. Bond St. and 213 Hodson on the Homewood
For more information about the event, go to