January 20, 2004

Remembering King & community

By Eric Rangus

For the past 15 years, Fleda Mask Jackson and her friends and family have celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in a special way.

Jackson and her husband Duane, a psychology professor at Morehouse College, invite friends to their southwest Atlanta home for a potluck breakfast. Atlanta’s King ecumenical service is on the television in the background.

Some of the guests are veterans of the civil rights movement. All are involved in some sort of service activity, and all are invited to share their stories. It’s a chance for those involved to relate their experiences and, for those too young to remember as well as those who weren’t even born, to learn of the struggle fought by so many.

“We see this as a time of renewing,” said Jackson, visiting associate professor in the Rollins School of Public Health’s Women and Children’s Center. Jackson has been “visiting” Emory for eight years. “This is as much a ritual in our home as Christmas or Thanksgiving.”

The Jackson family has close ties to the Kings. They are friends with Christine King Farris and Angela Farris Watkins (King’s sister and niece, respectively), and they are members of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Duane’s father, A. Patterson Jackson, was pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Chicago, King’s southside headquarters in that city.

One of Duane’s favorite stories is how he chose which college to attend; A. Patterson Jackson had gone to Morehouse, but Duane was leaning somewhere else. Visiting Atlanta with his father, the pair walked down Auburn Avenue and into the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There sat King.

“You think you’re too good to go to Morehouse?” King asked the then-high school senior. “Your dad was a Morehouse man. I’m a Morehouse man. What’s the problem?”

Duane Jackson went to Morehouse.

Fleda Jackson never met King. A native of Richmond, Va., she did not come to Atlanta until 1969, when she began her freshman year at Spelman. But she does have vivid memories of growing up in the segregated Virginia capital.

“There are places in Richmond I have never gone to,” said Jackson, who grew up in Church Hill, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. “I remember the angst and excitement of the civil rights era. There was always a concern about the dangers that those involved would confront, but there was a lot of pride in terms of the victories they won.”

Jackson said she had mixed feelings about going to places that once were restricted to whites. “There was a feeling we had accomplished something as a people,” she said. “It was novel, celebratory, but it would never replace the quality I had in my community.”

Jackson’s father worked for the railroad, and one of the perks was that her family could ride the train for free. She said she remembers being able to ride in any car she wanted on trips from New York to Washington. But when the train reached Washington traveling south, her family would have to move to cars at the back. Fleda’s parents told her that the train was just refueling or there was a maintenance problem.

“I understood that it was a different kind of car, but they covered it up,” Jackson said. “Parents tried to protect their children.”

Jackson’s participation in marches and other activities was after the time of King, but she does her part to keep his memory alive, especially on the Emory campus. For the last two years, she has co-chaired the committee responsible for organizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards.

Now in their 11th year, the awards honor individuals and organizations for community service and advocacy in areas such as social justice, diversity, culture and heritage, and programs for children. This year’s theme is “Lest We Forget: Building Community Through Unity, Service and Collective Responsibility.”

“The School of Public Health wanted to have some recognition of Dr. King’s birthday and elevate the human rights and social justice agenda of public health,” Jackson said. “This is one of the highlight activities for the school in terms of its mission in addressing social justice.”

This year’s event, which will take place Jan. 22 at 4 p.m. in the Goizueta auditorium (the business school is co-sponsor), will honor the memory of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. The keynote speaker will be Elizabeth Williams Omilami, daughter of the late Hosea Williams and director of Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless.

Honorees will include Sheltering Arms Early Education and Family Centers, Atlanta’s oldest nonprofit child development program; Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, an organization that inspires hope in children whose mothers are incarcerated; Kidds Dance Project, which promotes the prevention of substance abuse through the art of dance; and Michael Mauldin, father of super-producer Jermaine DuPri, who established R&B Hip Hop 4 Humanity, a corporation that functions as “the United Way for the urban community.”

A special award will be given to Farris, King’s sister, for her role in the preservation of his life and legacy.

From her time as a graduate student at University of Illinois, Jackson has pursued the psychosocial and culture context shaping the lives and experiences of African Americans. As a social scientist, academically trained in psychology and anthropology, her community-based approach has explored the role of institutional settings such as the black church on the education and nurturing of children and the support of families.

“My main role in the School of Public Health is that I conduct research on racism and gendered oppression among African American women and its implications on health,” Jackson said. “So, this work resonates with a passion I have in terms of what we should be about as academicians, as scholars.”

Jackson’s recent research has explored the intertwining of physical and mental health, specifically in the area of stress reduction for African American women. “I see myself in the next couple years devoting my energies to redressing that,” Jackson said. “We will not achieve the health outcomes we need unless we have a way in which we can deal with the emotional and mental heath concerns that accompany physical health outcomes.”

It’s an area Jackson has researched from many angles. She was principal investigator of a major study that looked into why African American women, regardless of their socioeconomic background, were more likely to have babies born pre-term and with low birthweight.

The data suggest that black women’s stress levels are higher than their white counterparts, and Jackson said stress is tied into issues of race.

“If we look at the nurturing role many women assume, the added burden of racism means that there is a concern about children having to be confronted with racism,” Jackson said. “Racial profiling is a concern for African American mothers well before their children are born. If women knew they were going to have a male child, there was real concern about how they would protect them. It’s a major thing.”

African American women also have disproportionate rates of cardiovascular disease, and they are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Regarding breast cancer, Jackson said African American women tend to seek medical care late, which allows the disease to advance. The question is why.

The answers, she said, are complex, but stress is one of the culprits. And Jackson has creative ideas about how to address the problem. One of them was covered at a conference held at Spelman College last year.

“Girlfriending 101” promotes the idea of taking a friend to the doctor, but the thoughts behind it are much more complex. “It presumes you have a friend with whom you would reveal health concerns,” Jackson said. “‘Girlfriending 101’ is really talking about the components of friendship.

“We know in public health that social support is critical,” she continued. “It’s one of those pieces that certainly promotes good health, but it presumes that people know how to establish those relationships, and that they know how to sustain them.”

This type of community-based research is where Jackson currently is focused. She has received grants from the Ford Foundation to look at social support of pregnancy, as well as relationship issues surrounding pregnant African American women, both married and unmarried.

One way Jackson brings her research to the Emory community is through her course, “Race, Class and Gender: Implications for the Health Status of African American Women.” It takes both a historical and contemporary view of political, economic, social and cultural factors that affect health consequences of African American women. As part of the class’ final projects, students must come up with ways to make a difference.

“That’s the connection to Dr. King,” Jackson said. “What can we do about it?”