January 16, 2005
As many of you may know, the Commission was created in 1985 by an Executive Order issued by the County Executive. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the annual celebration to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
I especially want to commend the Commission for motivating young people. During the past four years, over $2,700 has been presented to middle and high school students who were selected as winners for participating in the Martin Luther King, Jr. “Living the Dream Essay” contest.
When I was considering this year’s theme – “A Day to Dream – A Lifetime to Act”, I thought of my father, Bob Kittleman. As many of you may know, my father passed away on September 11, 2004. After his death, there were many kind words said about my father. He would have probably been embarrassed by the attention paid to him. That was just the kind of person he was.
My family moved to Howard County in the mid-1950s. My father was transferred to this area by Westinghouse. They bought a new home in Allview Estates [just off Route 29]. My father was a strong Republican and he quickly sought to get involved in the Howard County Republican Party. He got the names of two Republican activists in Howard County who lived in the 6th election district [his district] and he went to meet them. Their names were Remus and Leola Dorsey. My father often told me that Remus and Leola Dorsey were the first African Americans that he shook hands with in his life. He always loved going to see the Dorseys – he especially loved Mrs. Dorsey’s chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Dorsey is with us this afternoon.
Mrs. Dorsey can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the conversation went something like this: My father said that he was there to work with the Republican Party and wanted to know if they would help him. Mr. Dorsey responded, yes and we are wondering if you would help us with civil rights issues in Howard County. My father said yes. And a lifetime relationship began.
My father joined the Howard County Branch of the NAACP. He later became the Chairman of the Education Committee. When my parents divorced in the early 1960s, my father got custody of the three children [quite unusual for the time]. He did not stop his work with the NAACP. As you can imagine, at that time in Howard County, it was not the most popular thing for a white person to be an active member of the NAACP.
Although I was fairly young at the time, my father told me that he would receive threats because of his involvement with the NAACP. He told me that he would come home and move my sister’s, my brother’s and my bed away from the windows just in case someone threw something through the window. There was always a lot of rumors going around the community concerning my father’s activities. People wondered why so many African Americans were coming to our house. There were concerns that my father was going to sell our house to an African American. Can you imagine such a terrible thing? Despite all this, my father did not stop his efforts.
As the Chair of the Education Committee, he focused on the desegregation of the public schools. He worked very closely with Silas Craft and Elhart Flurry. Two of the great “triumvirate” – as my father would call Mr. Craft, Mr. Flurry and Morris Woodson. All three were great civil rights leaders in Howard County.
My father spent many evenings meeting with school officials in an effort to get them to desegregate the public schools. He wrote letters to, and met with, the superintendent of schools. The superintendent and the Board of Education continued to hamper all the efforts to push desegregation.
My father loved to tell the story of when he and Mr. Craft [the President of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP] went to meet with Dr. Edward Cochran. Dr. Cochran had just been appointed to the Howard County Board of Education. Prior to that time, the Board of Education had voted consistently 3 to 2 to avoid desegregation. With Dr. Cochran’s appointment, my father and Mr. Craft thought that there was a real opportunity to get a majority of the Board to push to desegregate the schools.
They set up an appointment to meet with Dr. Cochran at his home in January. There happened to be a large snowfall that day and no one in their right mind would have traveled out on the roads. I recall Dr. Cochran saying that he did not expect them to be able to keep the appointment.
In the evening, Dr. Cochran heard a knock at the door. There was Mr. Craft and my father. They had parked their car at the bottom of Dr. Cochran’s driveway [a fairly long uphill driveway] and walked up to meet with him. The meeting was historic because Dr. Cochran indeed became the deciding vote to once and for all desegregate the Howard County Public Schools.
When Mr. Craft resigned from the NAACP to accept employment outside Howard County, my father was appointed to replace him. Later, when he was asked to run for the position, my father responded that he did not think it was right for a white person to be the President of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP. To this day, he is the only white person to hold that office.
My father also told me stories of when he would go to a restaurant with his friends and being told to leave because the restaurant would not serve African Americans.
He told me that lawsuits would be filed against the restaurant and the owner would be forced to serve African Americans. My father told about one restaurant owner, who told my father and his friends, “I may have to serve you dinner, but I do not have to be in the restaurant when you eat.” And the owner would leave until they were finished with their dinner.
After his work in the civil rights movement, my father continued to work for what he believed was right by serving in the State Legislature. He served 19 years in the House of Delegates [becoming the Minority Leader in 1995. He served 3 years in the State Senate until his death last September.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated:
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe,nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
In a 1963 speech, Dr. King also said:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
My father stood for what was right during the times of challenge and controversy. He did not ask if it was safe, politic or popular. He only asked “is this right?”
I was talking with someone the other day about my father’s life. She told me that she did not know about my father’s involvement in the civil rights movement. I told her that many, many people came up to me after reading about my father’s life and said that they also did not know about his work in the 1960s. I told her that the reason people did not know, was because my father didn’t talk about it. My father saw his work as being the right thing to do. He didn’t think that he deserved any recognition for doing the right thing. He didn’t consider himself a hero. He considered himself simply a person who wanted to make sure that everyone was treated equally.
My father used his lifetime to make a difference for the good. The question to us becomes, are we willing to do the same? As Dr. King said, “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
Are we willing to go the route that is not safe, politic or popular? Are we willing to stand for what is right and just? Are we willing to serve others?
If you think that you are not able to serve – let me close with these words of Dr. King:
“Everybody can be great …. because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
20050116 Remarks at MLK Jr Celebration kittleman