By Maria Saporta
The King Center’s annual Salute to Greatness dinner Saturday night broke new ground on two fronts.
Bernice A. King, CEO of the King Center, bravely addressed the hundreds attending the elegant fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta about the legal dispute currently underway between her and her two brothers — Dexter King and Martin Luther King III.
Second, the overarching theme of the night centered on the rights and empowerment of women. During the civil rights movement, women tended to play a supporting or background role giving the spotlight to men.
But on Saturday night, women took center-stage — and several of the men who did speak at the podium obviously had heard the message.
Perhaps they also were making a point to stand up for Bernice King as CEO of the King Center. Her two brothers have filed a lawsuit asking for her to step aside as the center’s CEO and for former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young to step down from the King Center’s board, on which he has served for decades.
Countersuits have been filed, and the matter currently is still in litigation.
When she came up to the podium, Bernice King thanked the sponsors of the dinner — which included the Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines, the Home Depot, AARP, Mercedes-Benz USA, the Atlanta Daily World, Kia Motors America, Newell Rubbermaid and Xerox Corp.
“It’s especially meaningful this year given the lawsuit filed by my brothers,” she said. “That has made it extremely challenging to expand our corporate base. I want you to be assured that none of your contributions will be going to the lawsuit.”
Bernice King explained that lawyers representing her side of the case are working pro-bono.
“I also want to end the continuing notion that we are fighting over money,” Bernice King said. “I’m fighting for the right for continuing to do the work that my father gave his life to and my mother tirelessly worked for and committed her life to.”
She went on to say that her vision is to expand the King Center board so it reflects greater diversity and to strengthen the programming of the center. Given that this is the 50th anniversary of both the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the year that Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The goal in 2014 is to “reimage” and “restore” the King Center “from the inside out,” she said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed commended Bernice King for “putting her own stuff out there the way she did.” He added that politicians could learn a lesson from her candor and her direct approach.
When it was his turn, Young walked down memory lane — recalling an incredible moment when he and King visited President Lyndon Baines Johnson after the passage of the Civil Rights Act to urge him to get the Voting Rights Act through Congress.
“I don’t really have the power you think I do,” President LBJ told King and Young.
When they left the meeting, Young asked King what he thought.
“Here was a 5 foot, 7 inch giant who said: ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’ By the end of March, 1965, this same president was standing before Congress introducing the Voting Rights Act, and that changed the South, the nation and the world,” Young said.
But Young quickly added that the struggle is not over — especially for women around the world.
“There are more than 2 billion women in conditions that most of us would consider to be enslavement, and none of us have done much about it,” Young said. “There seems to be a war on women.”
Young talked about gender disparities in what is covered in healthcare plans. “Imagine men if they took Viagra off your insurance? It wouldn’t bother me. I married Viagra,” Young said laughingly while looking at his wife Carolyn. The room cracked up.
Then Young became serious.
“We really are just beginning the war for our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters,” Young said. “This is war. We have got to go brothers. If you don’t follow these women and go with them, you are going to be lonely in your old age.”
One of the honorees of the night was a young woman from Pakistan — Khalida Brohi — who has been fighting for the rights of women in her country as founder and executive director of Sughar Empowerment Society.
Brohi said that in her society, women are brought up to be modest when they are being recognized.
“But today, I have to be shameless,” she said excitedly. “Oh my God! This means so much to me.”
She said King’s teachings taught her to forgive those who killed one of her friends because she had relations with a man before they were married.
Brohi quoted King: “I decided to stick to love. Hate is too big a burden to bear.”
Last on the Salute to Greatness program was Eve Ensler, founder of the worldwide woman empowerment event — One Billion Rising — which was launched in 2013. The second annual “One Billion Rising” will be held in cities and communities around the world on Feb. 14.
She too had a favorite King quote: “A person who is not willing to die for a cause is not fit to live.”
King fought to end racism, war and poverty. Today, Ensler said civil rights is intertwined with economic rights and with women’s rights and environmental rights.
She ended by saying: “Love is stronger than hate.”