February 15, 2006

Case professor sees contrast of Dr. King's and wife's passing

Sharon Milligan
Sharon Milligan and her historic image

The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson calls it "the decisive moment"—that split second that is frozen on the frame of a photographic negative.

Sharon Milligan, Case Western Reserve University's associate professor of social work and co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change, was caught that way during one second in time.

Around midnight on the eve of April 9, 1968, Milligan, then a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and her friends cut into the solemn line of sorrowful mourners waiting outside Sisters Chapel to view the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lying in state.

All day long, thousands of people worldwide, including hundreds of photographers and reporters, had come to campus to see the late civil rights leader, who had been shot and gunned down in the prime of his life.

It was an emotional time, remembers Milligan.

She recalls that the grief-stricken friends thought that they could slip into the chapel late at night after the crowds dwindled in size, pay their respects to the great leader and mourn during a private moment to reflect about Dr. King's contributions.

As the friends slowly moved forward and listened to the music played by Spelman's organist on the chapel's pipe organ, Milligan glanced up as she passed Dr. King's casket. The lights of a camera flashed, but she recalls being so engrossed in pain, thinking about the loss to black people that she was oblivious to the photographer and the others recording this historic event.

Years later on a visit to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Milligan received a shock of her life. There she was in the photograph with her friends beside Dr. King's casket.

"I was speechless. I didn't say anything to the other people with me," said Milligan.

Then Milligan began receiving copies of books, like Malcolm and Martin, from Gwen Jones West, the first young woman pictured to the left in the photograph and who now works for the State of Georgia. The next in line, just in front of Milligan, was Wayne Thompson, now a Baptist minister in St. Petersburg, Fla. Behind Milligan is John McCottrell, who now lives in New Jersey.

The picture was reprinted time and again.

Over time, she said people described her as "angry."

"I wasn't angry but in pain," she added.

"I never realized we were being recorded. I didn't realize I looked up until I recently took a good look at the photograph," she said.

Since her 1971 graduation from Spelman, Milligan said she did not think much about the photograph. But recently that changed, she said, reflecting about the hopes and dreams of an 18-year-old girl about an idealistic life and pausing to think about the photo in preparation for a talk about diversity at Case for MSASS' Advisory Council.

The recent death of Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, brought a flurry of emails and messages from the friends capture in that decisive moment years ago.

They exchanged emails and calls about the "common experience" they shared and about how time changes things and yet how things can sometimes stay the same time.

One difference was that while the then Georgia Governor Lester Maddox refused to allow Dr. King's body to lie in state at the capital building, Mrs. King was given the honor—and like her husband thousands of mourners passed and paid their respects, with the family once again thrust into the international spotlight.

What many students do not realize about the civil rights struggle, Milligan said, is that Dr. King led marches to have the laws that afforded Blacks the right to vote carried out and that some groups, particularly in the South, did not adhere to the laws and created barriers for people.

As she teaches her students in the social policy course at MSASS, "The civil rights legislation was there to make sure the country adheres to the laws in place."

She said she thinks about the voting rights so difficult to attain and that now have been mostly "ignored by people who do not value voting as much as they should."

Milligan also is amazed at the continuing struggle by Case and other universities to attract, to admit and to keep minorities on campus.

"I am surprised that 38 years after the photo was taken that we still struggle. In human history, it is a small amount of time, but it is ludicrous because we know how to do it and it is not done," said Milligan.

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, February 15, 2006 12:04 PM | News Topics: Public Policy/Politics

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