A secretary by day, a mother of two sons by evening when she returns to her modest Northeast Washington home, Alice Hodges beamed broadly as she held her autographed programs head high and nudged through the throng of well-wishers at yesterday's black history celebration.
Upon escaping the crowd, Hodges clutched to her chest two programs that had been signed by Yolanda King, the 24-year-old daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader.
Since she was never able to get close to Dr. King, Hodges said, his daughter was the next best thing.
"I thank God, and I thank Martin Luther King, because without them, I wouldn't have the job I have today," said Hodges, a Suffolk, Va., native who, without a high school diploma, worked her way up to be cheif of secretaries in her office. "Just to have something from his daughter, I would have crawled up there."
More than 300 people crowded into the General Services Administration cafeteria at Seventh and D streets SW yesterday to commemorate Black History Month and to listen to Yolanda King.
It was a time for reflection about goals attained, coupled with an eloquent warning from King not to be lulled into complacency about the struggles still ahead for many black Americans.
There were others besides Hodges, who still has a large painting of Dr. King on black velvet displayed over her living-room sofa. "I remember how he struggled for us. I remember the signs over fountains saying white and black water. There's no such thing as black water," Hodges said.
They were looking for a symbol of hope, linking past with present. Heads turned, necks craned as Yolanda King entered the cafeteria accompanied by GSA officials and press people. Clerk-typists Sylvia Douglas and Victoria Johnson, and Marsha Weems, a contract specialist, got up from their seats for a better view. They looked at Yolanda King's picture on the front of the program, then back to the young woman walking among them, comparing the image with the flesh.
"She looks better in her picture," said Johnson to a friend, who leaned forward for a better view.
"I look at her as if she is a part of what her father represents," Douglas said.
As the bronze-colored Cadillac Seville sped from the airport to the cafeteria, Yolanda King, who was 12 when her father was assassinated in Memphis, described the difficulties of coming to grips with the image of a legendary father.
"People expect me to pick up the movement, to assume the role of spokesperson and to determine where we go from here, to embody my father's ideas and philosophies and struggles that he waged," King said.
"On the one hand, that is what I have done, but I have done it in a different way," she said.
King is a professional actress and director who portrayed Rosa Parks in the television movie "King," based on her father's life. She has a fairer complexion than her father had, but has his strong nose and stocky build. Her voice is polished and soft-spoken.
"My hope, through working with young people in the theater, in speaking before audiences, is to be able to instill in them who we are and where we've been," she said. "We cannot sit idly by and let the world go by.
"What I hear when people come up to me is, 'I did not get to meet your mother or your father, but I am meeting you,'" said King, who is now directing a young people's theater project with the theme of self-confidence and perseverance.
"These things do touch me," she said. "It's an incredible feeling in that my father touched people in remarkable ways, and the transference of their love to me is inspirational.
"Right after the assassination I had to speak, to stand in for mother sometimes at ceremonies, and after a while I stopped that -- it really wasn't me," King said, gesturing toward herself. "Later I realized that all those things I was running from was me. I realized that I could not disconnet myself from my roots.
"Daddy epitomized hope for so many people, but he was just 'daddy' to me," King said. "We did not know him as the hero that other people did. Much of the serious explanations were given by my mother. I realize now that you have to have knowledge of your past, your legacy, in order to be strong in whatever you are moving toward."
King, wearing a bright red dress, stood before the audience in the GSA cafeteria, slowly building momentum in the cadence and content of her speech, eliciting nods and "that's right" from the secretaries, technical specialists, contract officers and others in this largely black assemblage.
"Jim Crow [segregation] is dead, but his sophisticated cousin James Crow, Esq., is very much alive," she said, receiving thunderous applause and a standing ovation. "We must cease our premature celebration [about civil rights already achieved] and get back to the struggle. We cannot be satisfied with a few black faces in high places when millions of our people have been locked out.
"Everybody cannot be a leader or a spokesperson, but there is something you can do, even at the GSA."