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What Would Dr. King Think?

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 14, 2006

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it seems fitting to ask what the Nobel Prize winner would think of America and race in the 21st century. Of course, the answer is unknowable. But it's not beyond reason to speculate how King might react to a few noteworthy events in contemporary America.

Four topics come to mind: Georgia's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court, a fallen councilman and a suburban county coming to grips with itself.

ยท King's home state of Georgia. In his book "Vernon Can Read!", high-powered Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan tells the story of his first real case after graduation from Howard University law school in 1960. Jordan and his boss, Atlanta lawyer Donald Hollowell, were trying to get a stay of execution for Nathaniel Johnson, a young black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman. The case had been badly handled by a white attorney, and the version of the rape story received by Jordan and Hollowell convinced them that Johnson, who had been arrested in the middle of the night without a warrant and who had no real chance of getting a fair trial, was being railroaded to the death chamber.

Working frantically to get a stay, the two lawyers ended up in the chambers of W.H. Duckworth, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, to make their case.

"In the middle of this literally deadly serious matter," Jordan wrote, "Duckworth asked me, 'Son, where do you play basketball?' "

"I shook my head and said, 'I don't play basketball anywhere.' "

"We left the chambers empty-handed."

While Jordan and Hollowell had been running from office to office trying to save Johnson's life, he was executed. Walking home that morning during a hot Georgia summer, Jordan wrote that he was "thinking of how our client had been killed by a poisonous combination of incompetence, hatred and indifference -- and then the tears began to flow."

"The more I cried, the weaker I got, and before I knew it I looked down and realized that I had totally lost control. I had urinated on myself."

Over dinner a few weeks ago, Jordan spoke to some of us about a recent trip to Atlanta, where he had the chance to meet the current chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

Her name is Leah Ward Sears, the first woman to serve on that high court and, since last year, its first female chief justice and the first African American woman to lead a state's highest appeals court anywhere in America.

Dr. King, I think, would call that progress.


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