Beverly Collins was protesting a ban on blacks in Wilkes-Barre restaurants before Martin Luther King Jr. hit his stride.
Leonard Cornish was 11 years old when he stood near the front of the crowd as King gave his famous I have a dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Monument.
Attorney Kim Borland was so stirred by King's oratorical prowess he named a regional debate tournament after the civil rights leader.
This year, by coincidence, the nation marks the 28th observance of Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday and the second-term inauguration of the country's first minority president, Barack Obama.
The Times Leader asked several area residents about his legacy, the possible legacy of Obama, and the state of racial relations nearly 35 years after King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn.
King, incidentally, would have turned 84 this year.
Cornish is a retired state worker who runs a soil and environmental consulting business. He has been an advocate for minorities in the area, including pushing Wilkes-Barre Area School Board to hire more minority teachers and staff.
I was fortunate enough to actually be taken to the march on Washington (in 1963, when King gave his Dream speech). Cornish said. It was pretty much an eye-opening experience.
The aunt that I went with, I can remember her taking me to restaurants and teaching me nice manners and etiquette. My (nine) aunts took pride in being able to go into those fancy restaurants, places that had tried to keep them out.
Cornish said Obama is guaranteed a significant legacy by dint of being the first black president, but I have some disappointments. Obama, he noted, Came into a bad situation, wars and an economy not necessarily created by him.
What his legacy is? It may be a little too early to tell.
And while race relations are far different now than in era of King, there are still problems. When I see the youth of today and how things are in this world, I think it's something of a dream unfulfilled. One of the problems I have is that, when King died, no one picked up that gauntlet.
When he graduated from Coughlin High School, Cornish was one of only two black students. He vividly recalled some teachers telling him he was wasting his time taking any courses that prepared him for college.
One gentleman told me ‘You're nothing, you'll always be nothing.' I'll never forget that.
His success despite such discouragement is one reason Cornish said he pushes for changes now, including a recurring, if largely unsuccessful, effort to have school district staff more closely reflect the student body ethnically. Nearly half the enrollment is minority, yet we have four minority teachers.
I feel people gave to me. I think I'm obligated to give back. I need to impart to these children struggling that it doesn't matter where you come from, what matters is where you are going.
Borland, an attorney with his wife, Ruth, started and runs the Meyer's High School Debate Team. Their signature event, held Saturday, is the Martin Luther King Tournament.
We felt that Meyers, being a city high school, was the right place to do something special to honor King and his memory, Borland said
The debate includes the Martin Luther King Declamation event, where students perform one of King's speeches, an oratory competition that must relate to King, and competition in Martin Luther King original poetry that must loosely relate to things that mattered to King
The debate club has also made side trips to King landmarks when attending out-of state events: a statue of King at Boston University; a side trip to Selma and Montgomery, Ala., during a tournament in Birmingham.
Obama differs from King in a fundamental way, making any comparison difficult, Borland said. The kids who compete recognize that political figures are different from a movement figure, a motivator as opposed to a process person.
And while Obama's election was a watershed moment for the county, Borland noted it probably should not have taken so long. I think its wonderful thing that we were able to get past a certain, superficial racial issue, he said. But his debate team lessons work further. We have a lot of conservative kids, a lot of liberal kids, and we try to have them work on common ground.
She has run a Wilkes-Barre barber shop for three decades. The civil rights movement, she noted, started around here before King rose to prominence.
It was what it was in Wilkes-Barre, she said. Prejudice was here. We weren't allowed to go in stores; we weren't allowed to sit in restaurants.
The Negro Women's Civics League would stage sit-ins at such locations. There was no way we were going to sit back and let them do that to us. We were people who stood up for our rights and they knew it.
Such determination was bred in Collins' bones. Her father ran his own hauling company, delivering coal and removing ashes, and he always carried a clean pair of coveralls. Once the dirty work was done, he donned the clean pair and went to the front door. My dad would never go to a back door when he went to collect money.
When King rose to prominence and made activism a national cause, it was awesome to be able to be a part of it, Collins said. And the King legacy prompted an organization in honor of him. I was a member of the Martin Luther King Committee in Wilkes-Barre and we used to have a program every year at Wilkes University.
While Obama's legacy has yet to be written, Collins believes he will do great things. He's got a lot to do, but I think he's up to the task. I believe he is going to surprise a lot of people.
And although the days when a teacher would not allow Collins to become a baton twirler at GAR high school are long gone, there is still prejudice here.
It's still around. But you just have to go against it, no two ways about it.
Leary is president of Luzerne County Community College. Along with David Barber, a member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he gave a presentation on King during a Saturday event.
I was going through high school when he was at the peak of his career, Leary said. His presentation included reading a poem written by a man who grew up in South Wilkes-Barre in honor of King. It was given an award by Martin Luther King's son in 1986, Leary said.
I think his legacy is one really to inspire people never to give up, Leary said, citing King's persistence. I teach history and I always remind students that the greatest changes in our history have been brought about by people, not by their leaders. It was done by people willing to risk a great deal to create an opportunity for change, realizing that they were not going to benefit from those changes themselves.
Obama's election, to some degree, was the crowning achievement of that change for King, Leary said. But the president's real legacy will be etched in his second term.
I think his legacy will be determined by how successful he is in transforming America into amore civil and welcoming society.
Unfortunately, there is still racial tension in this country, Leary said. And there are still dramatic statistical inequities that directly impact LCCC: racial gaps in economic and educational attainment persist.
With lower-cost tuition and an open policy that admits all comers, the college can always do better, but I think we make a real difference in our community because of the opportunity that we provide to individuals who otherwise might not have had them.
He has been a longtime vocal activist for Hispanics and minorities in the area, and is staging a King event at Wilkes-Barre City Hall at 3 p.m. today.
For Jirau, King's legacy is very personal. He grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn, watching his father get verbally and even physically abused just because he spoke and acted differently.
Jirau concedes his first instinct was to fight back. But his mother had become a believer in King's non-violent methods.
My mom was the one in the family who brought us together and said ‘I know you're angry, but there is hope, there is a better method.'
I don't know where I would have been as a young man in the streets if it weren't for King's influence on his mother.
King definitely opened the door for Obama, Jirau said. King was a man everyone followed, not just blacks, and Obama brought a similar coalition together to become president.
He has proven that when a person has a vision to help all of us, a man of any color can come to the highest position in this country.
While racial relations have improved, there's always room for work. I hope down the road, as a Latino, that we will have the chance to come to the plate and show that, given the chance, we can do as well as anyone else.
Bolan is director of the Shoval Center and Service Learning at King's College, and will be the keynote speaker at an 11 a.m. event at the college today.
King's legacy is that he was an incredible revolutionary figure for civil rights, Bolan said. But some people take the view that the legislation passed in the '60s was all that we needed.
I think just because you have legal recognition of the rights of people of different ethnicities, it doesn't necessarily mean that equality is recognized and affirmed in our day-to-day lives. Look at the income disparity between different classes and races and ethnicities. There's reason for that.
Obama's rise to president is testament to the success of Dr. King's vision, Bolan said. And while some criticize Obama for not being as progressive as King, their rolls are very different.
President Obama is an elected official, and that carries a different type of responsibility and mission. It's more limited in scope. Dr. King had more freedom to act.
Barber is second vice president of the Wilkes-Barre Chapter of the NAACP, and was a speaker with Leary at the association's event Saturday.
While his speech focused on King's lesson of loving your enemy despite what they do to you, Barber said King's biggest legacy was to not have people be afraid. A lot of people were afraid to say or do anything.
When King rose to prominence, Barber noted, people were still being lynched. Organizing marches that included people of all races went a long way in ending those fears.
Obama has been kind of moderate for me, Barber said, but he has to be president of everybody. He's not just the president of African Americans, he's president of all Americans.
And race relations have improved, but There's still work to be done.
That's the reason for this holiday, to bring it back to the forefront.
Today, Jan. 21:
King's College observation
11 a.m. to noon
Sheehy Farmer Campus Center, 3rd floor
(between North Main and North Franklin Streets, Wilkes-Barre)
Comments by students, activists and Shoval Center and Service Learning Director Bill Bolan.
Canned food donations are accepted for St. Vincent DePaul Kitchen.
Getting Into Step! Put People First PA's Martin Luther King Day event
First Presbyterian Church , 97 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre
Getting Into Step! Put People First PA's Martin Luther King Day event
Presentation on life work and impact of King, followed by discussion of work and goals of Put People First PA.
Misericordia University MLK Day of Service project
Canned food donations can be dropped off until 4 p.m. at the Campus Ministry, Banks Student Life Center in the upper campus off Lake Street, Dallas Township. They will be given to local food banks.
Thursday, Jan. 24:
King's College hosts King's Dream tribute.
William G. McGowan School of Business, North River Street.
Includes live concert and multi-media presentation.