MIAMI — Hattie Willis is a one-person dynamo. The 51-year old is the mother of two biological children and “hundreds” more to whom she did not give birth but provided a home for them nonetheless.
Willis, a self-proclaimed “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King baby,” refused to allow the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech to pass without a public commemoration.
The community activist, who has seen to it that more than 300 children from inner-city communities attend college, coordinated an outdoor viewing of the late civil rights activist’s 1963 speech at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center in Liberty City last week on Aug. 28.
The anniversary was made more significant with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s acceptance of his nomination on the same date.
A staunch Obama supporter, Willis secured a huge outdoor screen and a massive sound system that blasted R & B legend Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’’ before the familiar images of King’s famous remarks to hundreds of thousands at the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital.
“Democracy doesn’t work unless we participate,” Willis said.
Carolyn McQueen, Rose Coley, Brenda Rice and Maggie McQueen were among several dozen people who attended the event.
The women sat together on lawn chairs waiting for the festivities to begin.
Carolyn said she came “To celebrate the dream speech – it means that I could be able to go to the bathroom without it saying, ‘Colored Only.’”
Coley, 65, a registered voter for over 30 years, said she has been glued to the television all week watching the Democratic National Convention. The highlight of the political gathering for her was, “Michelle Obama’s speech and [Bill] Clinton and Hillary, both of them did justice to [Obama].”
Rice is a retired auto steel worker and former Hillary Clinton supporter who switched her support to Obama after hearing what he had to say.
The youthful-looking 65-year old said, “I’m here because it’s a history making night. I marched in ‘64 in Mississippi and never, ever in my life would I dream that there would be a black man running for president, so this is really quite an honor for me because I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.”
Lavon Williams, sixth-grade teacher at Oak Grove elementary school and owner of a lawn service, said he came to the event, “To hear our next president accept the [Democratic] nomination.”
In a horrible twist of irony, while on his way to the event to commemorate a man who preached non-violence, Williams witnessed a shooting between two black men just miles away from the center.
Still shaken, Williams said he was able to give the police a description of the car in which the assailant drove away. He said the victim was shot several times, but Williams was unsure of his condition. Williams said he hopes an Obama presidency would help black men to know their true worth.
Willis’ connection to King runs deep. “When I was eight years old, I saw the KKK set my mom’s house on fire. Martin Luther King ate dinner at my mother’s house, and he slept at my aunt’s house when he came to do the march in St. Augustine.”
King was arrested during the summer of 1964 for attempting to eat at a whites-only restaurant in the Florida city. Willis said she and her family were also jailed for trying to eat at the restaurant, where her mother was employed, but could not be served.
Vivid images from her childhood helped to shape the activist’s sense of obligation to her community. Willis recalls being excited that her mother would cook large amounts of food to take on a road trip, not realizing the real reason behind it.
“We had no idea that she was doing that because she couldn’t go in the restaurants,” she said.
Willis plans to attend the inauguration if Obama is elected. With grandchildren in tow, she said they will display a nine-foot banner that says, “Yes we can, yes we did and this is why we are here.”