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
“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
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?”