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Environmental Factor, February 2012

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NIH celebrates King legacy with dance, music, and personal history

By Eddy Ball

NIH offered attendees something a little different this year at its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Observance Program Jan. 12 in Bethesda, Md. Although the program featured an engaging talk by African-American toxicologist Lemuel Russell, Ph.D., the event also showcased three inspirational dance and musical performances by students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Watch a Duke Ellington School of the Arts Piano Concert Preview. (00:53)

The theme for the anniversary of King’s birthday in 2012 was “Remember, celebrate, act — A day on, not a day off,” and the event was webcast to NIH facilities in Bethesda and other locations, including NIEHS.

Enlivened by a dream

Following a welcome by Assistant Director of the NIH Office of Intramural Research Roland Owens, Ph.D., NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., presented opening remarks. Collins encouraged employees to volunteer during the Jan. 16 holiday, as he set the tone for the speakers and performers who followed him.

“NIH’s annual observance gives the chance here, this morning, to raise our awareness of the changes that have been made as a consequence of Dr. King’s leadership,” Collins said, “recognizing, however, that we have not reached that Promised Land. We still have many things that need attention before we are truly to be able to say that our country is a place where justice and fairness are equally available in every way that Dr. King dreamed of.”

Dance, music, and oral history

Before Russell came to the podium for his keynote presentation, “Toxicology, Scientific Development, and Civil Rights,” the audience experienced the first of three performances by young artists. Moving to a tenor’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm, accompanied by harp and strings, a young woman presented a modern dance expression of triumph over adversity through unwavering faith in a higher power.

Russell began his talk about “What I do and how I got here” with a sort of primer on toxicology that merged at several points with key events from the civil rights struggle and what King’s life has meant to him as a scientist and a citizen. Russell began his personal narrative with a 1968 photo of himself, at age 8, with his brother and sister in Compton, Calif., just a few days before King’s death Apr. 5, 1968.

With photos and oral history, Russell described the milestones leading up to the Civil Rights Act and the importance of desegregation in the post-World War II military to the African-American experience since. He reinforced the military connection with a photo of himself in uniform at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he conducted scientific research during the early 1990s on cyanide ion binding. “What we were trying to do,” he said, “is develop systems to identify candidate antidotes.”

With his presentation complete, Russell turned the podium over to Owens, who welcomed dancers back to the stage. The students performed two more numbers based on African-American cultural themes.

The first was a stirring modern dance rendition of the coded slave escape song, “Wade in the Water,” with rhythm and blues inspired musical accompaniment, featuring a finale of ballet-influenced movement by a group of female dancers dressed in white.

The second brought a male modern dance ensemble to the stage, as a chorus performed an a cappella version of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (A Long Way from Home).”

Working together

The event concluded with remarks by Sheila Stokes, acting director of the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, which sponsored the observance. “Many of us today can talk about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Stokes told the audience. “I am here today because of the hard work that others put into embracing his vision, embracing his message.”

Stokes ended the program by reminding attendees of the universality of King’s legacy. “It’s a combined and collective effort.… It’s about what we do as a people together.”

Three dancers from the Duke Ellington School, performing on stage.

Three of the students from the Duke Ellington School danced gracefully to the rhythm of “Wade in the Water.” (Photo courtesy of NIH and Ernie Branson)

Five dances, performing, on stage

Male dancers moved to the haunting lyrics and music of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” (Photo courtesy of NIH and Ernie Branson)

NIH program leaders: left to right, are Owens, Collins, Stokes, and Russell.

NIH program leaders joined the guest speaker before their talks. Shown, left to right, are Owens, Collins, Stokes, and Russell. (Photo courtesy of NIH and Ernie Branson)

Lemuel Russell, Ph.D.

As a child in segregated postwar America, Russell could mark the milestones in his own life in sync with those of the Civil Rights Movement itself. (Photo courtesy of NIH and Ernie Branson)

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