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Library System Seeking Input on Ways to Tap Into Dr. King’s Legacy to Enhance Programs

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2015 issue pdf

By Anthony L. Harvey

At a lightly attended November 4th panel discussion in the great hall of the MLK Memorial Library, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s long-serving since 1991 Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a DC Public Library (DCPL)-organized panel on the general topic of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights legacy and its direct impact on Washington, DC.

Even though a native Washingtonian, Norton conceded in her introductory remarks that she had little, if any, direct knowledge of the impact of King’s civil rights leadership on DC since she had lived outside of Washington in pursuit of undergraduate, graduate, and law school degrees from Antioch College and Yale University, clerking for Judge A. Leon Higginbothm, Jr. in Philadelphia, and serving as Assistant Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City during the years of King’s greatest presence in the national and DC civil rights movement. Norton’ prominent Washington, DC presence began with her appointment by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 as the first woman to chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Another native Washingtonian panelist with cosmopolitan roots, who chaired the evening’s panel, was Michael Schaffer, recently appointed editor of The Washingtonian Magazine, an appointment that came after short stints by Schaffer at City Paper and the New Republic (2010 to 2014). Schaffer’s experience as a reporter prior to assuming the Washingtonian editorship and following his graduation from Columbia University with a history degree, according to the magazine’s Benjamin Fried in an article at the time Schaffer assumed the editorship, “was with U.S. News and World Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine [and “with a [varied] reporting career [that] has stretched from the war zones of Pakistan and Iraq to the American Pet Product Expo in Florida.”

Schaffer’s fellow panelists included Kerrie Cotten Williams, the DC Public Library system’s newly appointed Manager of Special Collections, who comes to DCPL after a 15-year career as an archivist, most recently with the Auburn Avenue Research Library at Clayton State University in Atlanta; Charmeica Fox-Richardson, Creative Director of Straight No Chaser Productions, an awarding-winning producer of documentary and non-fiction films and video, such as “Paper Trail” and the MLK Streets Project”; and Howard Dodson, Jr., listed as author and historian, which he certainly is, but otherwise is nationally prominent as the retired, long-time Director of the New York Public Library’s internationally famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the former, if short-time, consultant and Director of Howard University’s Library System and its Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

All of the panelists were lively and sought to engage their sparse but high-powered audience of local and library notables. Dodson and Fox-Richardson, however, were clearly the stars of the evening.

With Dodson it was his eloquent and inspirational clarion call for King’s unfinished civil rights legacy being the focus of the DCPL’s striving for a living presence of King’s words and deeds in the lives of all those impacted by the physical presence of a transformed MLK Memorial Library program, one that returned to the Library’s core roots of being about learning, and in this case, especially learning the legacy of MLK.

And with Fox Richardson, it was her experience in working with dramatic visual presentations of issues critical to the MLK legacy using the language and performance styles of today’s social media and contemporary youth culture that resonated.

Dodson specifically pointed to King’s recognition in the later part of his life of the critical chasm between wealth and poverty in this country, and to King’s direct involvement in organizing, in 1968, together with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Poor People’s Campaign immediately prior to his assassination. He implored the panel’s audience to focus efforts on extending and enhancing the impact of King’s unfinished legacy at the MLK Memorial Library by focusing on the following three issues: poverty, militarism, and racism. Dodson further stressed the need to proactively engage the public with such legacy programs.

Fox-Richardson emphasized in her remarks that DCPL’s legacy programs must push the concepts and techniques of economic empowerment and further encourage and provide for the opportunity for all — especially young people — to read and know all of Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings, not just his famous “I Have a Dream” eloquence. Others in the short question and answer period echoed these and Dodson’s admonitions.

[Editor’s Note: Earlier this year we reported on the progress being made by the architectural firms responsible for bringing the project to fruition. See, “MLK Library Reconstruction Design Concepts Supported by Fine Arts Commission and HPRB,” August 2015 issue pdf, page 1.]

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As an added bonus to the evening, large, blown up photographs of the most recent architectural renderings for the planned modernization and fifth floor expansion of the Mies van der Rohe-designed, MLK Memorial Library building were on view directly below the lobby’s nearby, magnificent MLK library mural. These renderings depicting light-filled, inviting spaces and stairways, reading rooms and performance spaces, and a brilliant rooftop terrace, reflect the collaboration of the Library’s award-winning design and historic preservation architectural firms — mecanoo architetecten of Delft, The Netherlands, and Martinez and Johnson of Washington, DC.