Environmental Factor, February 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS remembers Martin Luther King Jr.
By Melissa Kerr
Long mixed gravity with self-deprecating humor as he recalled his childhood in Chapel Hill, N.C., as America underwent tremendous social change during the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Referring to agape, the Greek word for unconditional love, Michaux shared his enthusiasm for King's message of love and respect for all mankind. He received a standing ovation for a speech filled with humor, emotion, and motivation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Shown, left to right, NIEHS employees Darlene Dixon, Ph.D., John Schelp, and Joyce Snipe laughed as Michaux delighted the audience with personal stories about King. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Robinson, center, and NIEHS Diversity Council Chair Brad Collins, right, presented Michaux with a copy of the poster announcing his talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Among several personal friends Michaux, right, talked with following the presentation was NIEHS contractor Elliott Gilmer. Gilmer, who attends the same Durham church as the speaker, said afterwards, "Mickey and I go back 57 years." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
NIEHS welcomed state Rep. Henry M. (Mickey) Michaux Jr. as guest speaker for a Jan. 19 tribute to the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Michaux shared his memories of working with his longtime colleague and friend. Michaux described King's achievements as a leader and the relevance of King's vision to America today.
Co-sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council and the Research Triangle Park Chapter of Blacks In Government (BIG), the observance opened with remarks from host and BIG Chapter President Veronica Godfrey Robinson, who also led the audience in singing the opening verse of "We Shall Overcome."
Chris Long, NIEHS acting associate director of management, followed with a personal - and at times emotional - reflection on how major events in the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s intersected with his childhood. "You can't just read about history. You have to connect with it somehow," Long insisted. "So I am particularly interested in hearing what Representative Michaux has to say today."
Long recommended that people in the audience take the time to revisit King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech to remember how King's words inspired the nation.
Bringing history to life
Although Michaux humanized this American legend with his anecdotes and quips about their time together, he said he wanted to give thanks and to celebrate King's larger-than-life achievements. "[King's] struggles were inspired by his religious faith," Michaux said. "The depth of meaning of his life is unfathomable and inexhaustible."
The two first met in October 1956, when Michaux invited King to speak before a Durham business group. "Martin really moved that community at that time," he said.
Michaux recalled the hot summer day in August 1963 in Washington, D.C., when he stood with the crowd of 200,000 and listened to King deliver a speech, which, Michaux said, "rang out across the country; echoing our hopes, refocusing our ideals, and summoning our better selves."
Michaux shared several fond memories of King, the man, who stayed with Michaux's family during visits to Durham. "Preachers love to eat," he joked. "I didn't know whether or not his staying with us every time he was in North Carolina was a result of my titillating conversation or my mother's cooking."
Michaux recalled a time when he accompanied King to five different presentations on the same day in Raleigh and Durham. King sat in a chair before each speech and very quickly memorized what he intended to say. According to Michaux, throughout the five different speeches, King never said the same thing twice.
A timeless message
"The last time I talked with Martin was in 1968," Michaux said. King had canceled a political tour with Michaux because he felt he had to return to Memphis where he was assassinated a few days later.
In reflecting on King's importance to subsequent generations, Michaux insisted that the message of community love and respect is needed today. "I celebrate with pleas for aggressive political participation," Michaux closed, "because it represents the most effective way to empower the disadvantaged, to give voice to the voiceless, to give substance to the invisible and in the process achieve true greatness for America."
Michaux is the longest-serving African American member of the North Carolina General Assembly. With the exception of a four-year period between 1979 and 1984, he has represented the 31st House district continuously since 1972.
(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)