Originally created 01/19/99

Service: King's son urged kindness

AIKEN -- Hands marked by age intertwined with the soft hands of youth as students, faculty and staff from the University of South Carolina at Aiken and Aiken Technical College on Monday celebrated the birth of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Black hands clenched white hands that reached for Hispanic hands as more than 60 voices became a single plea for justice.

"Harumbaa," they yelled three times in unison. Pronounced ha-rum-bay, the Swahili phrase means "Let us pull together."

On the final cry, a multitude of students and their teachers flung open the Etherredge Center doors, crammed themselves into vans and spent hours playing bingo with the elderly at a nursing home, vacuuming floors at a children's shelter and separating clothes and canned food for the needy at food banks.

"What you do today determines what your future will be," said Joe Benton, who spoke at the second annual Martin Luther King celebration, called "MLK: Continuing the Dream Through Service."

Under the Carter administration, Mr. Benton served as director of the National Youth Development Bureau.

At 15, the mischievous Seattle teen-ager was summoned to the principal's office, nothing new for the self-described bad boy. But on this particular day, young Joe didn't know why he was in the hot seat.

As he opened the door, a self-assured, handsome man looked down at him. He was a Baptist minister, and Joe was to take him on a tour of the school. Young Joe was in the company of Dr. King and hadn't realized it.

"Imagine the shock when the principal put me in charge of touring a minister around our school," Mr. Benton recalled. "I could show him where all the boys went to smoke and drink, or where you could shoot dice in the backyard, but that was about it."

But during that brief time, Dr. King shared some simple but poignant words with the boy, who showed promise but refused to recognize his potential.

"Within you is the power to go out and change the world," Dr. King told him. And Monday, a much wiser Joe Benton kept Dr. King's message alive.

Less than 48 hours before Mr. Benton spoke, Dr. King's son -- Martin Luther King III -- called on students across America to commit to one day of kindness.

The eldest son of the slain civil rights leader is the co-chairman of Do Something, a nonprofit organization that trains today's youth to become tomorrow's leaders.

Jacqueline Stanley took Mr. King up on his offer.

For at least an hour, the USC Aiken freshman called out bingo numbers to a group of residents at Mattie C. Hall Health Care Center.

The third round saw Bernice Wilson as the winner. Her prize: a pack of her favorite brand of peanut-butter crackers.

Down the hall, Alma Finnie, a physical education teacher, read aloud to Patience Rouse. A stroke has left Ms. Rouse with slurred speech and crippled feet.

But when three bright-eyed visitors entered her room, she said in a crystal-clear voice, "C'mon in and sit a spell. I'll be glad to visit with you."

Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.


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