By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on February 5, 2018
On the morning of May 28, 2014, Dr. Maya Angelou left her Earthly body for God’s Heavenly home. As I reflected upon her passing, I realized how fortunate I had been to have met and been mentored by so many of the greatest figures in history. My life has been an incredible journey along the road of greatness.
I was born into the family of Levi and Lillian Watkins, my parents and first set of heroes. I have never met any two people who had more courage, class, and character than my parents. They, along with my sisters and brothers, launched me forward on a remarkable journey along which I would enjoy full exposure to the best of the best in greatness among Americans of color.
I met the apostle of agape love at an early age. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was my pastor and Sunday school teacher at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Ralph David Abernathy was his friend and my family’s pastor for a while. Rosa Parks was my mom’s close friend. Dr. E.D. Nixon, who groomed Ms. Parks for her pioneering civil rights role during the Montgomery bus boycott, was one of my early mentors.
I met a young minister/civil rights activist named Jesse Jackson while I was a college student at Southern Illinois University. I learned the power of mass protest from Rev. Jackson during my summers at PUSH headquarters in Chicago. Rev. Bernard Lee, his colleague, was married to my sister Pearl. Through Bernard, I met Andy Young, Hosea Williams, James Orange, and a host of the Atlanta freedom fighters.
The NAACP, America’s oldest civil rights organization, awarded me a scholarship to desegregate The University of Alabama School of Law. It was there that I met Mr. Ramus Rhodes, the remarkable “janitor” who would mold me into a prolific and effective litigator. Mr. Rhodes’ mentorship gave me the trial skills I needed to amass one of the best records of landmark cases in the annals of American jurisprudence.
After law school, I met and worked for Clarence Norris, the last known surviving “Scottsboro Boy". Roy Wilkins, the famed and world-renowned executive director of the NAACP, personally directed Mr. Norris’ successful two-year fight for a full and unconditional pardon from the State of Alabama. The pardon, which was awarded in 1976, ended a 45-year legal fight to clear the nine innocent Scottsboro Boys of trumped up rape charges involving two white women.
Andrew Hayden, the first black mayor of Uniontown, Alabama, mentored me in 1974 on how to become a great city attorney. It was there that I met Larry Tate, the CEO of my bank in Birmingham, Alabama. Mayor Hayden, along with Mr. Tate, Ms. Jackson, Chief Hester, and myself, rebuilt this small West Alabama town into a booming municipality in the 1970s.
In 1975, Ida Mae Whitehurst and her daughter-in-law, Florence Whitehurst, gave me an opportunity to reform the Montgomery Police Department. Their case involved a police execution of an unarmed and innocent Bernard Whitehurst on December 2nd of that year. When officers realized “we done shot the wrong nigger,” they engaged in a massive cover-up of the shooting. They planted a “throw-down” pistol by Whitehurst’s dead body and falsified witness statements, among other things.
The Whitehurst case evolved into a nationally recognized scandal that resulted in the resignations of Montgomery’s mayor and police commissioner, the indictment of three police officers, and the firing or resignation of eight others. On April 3, 1977, the Washington Post called it “Alabama’s Watergate".
Then came Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder. Maggie was a true warrior queen. Her courage knew no limits. She and Julia liberated blacks in West Alabama by registering them to vote when it was dangerous to do so. They paid a heavy price for their courage and conviction but never regretted the road they took toward freedom. Maggie’s daughter Punta carries on her mother’s legacy today.
Alabama’s male warrior for civil rights and equal justice was John Knight. A recipient of the Silver Star for gallantry in action during the Vietnam War, Knight and his band of four brave freedom fighters spent 25 years as plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that desegregated Alabama’s 32 four-year public colleges and universities and resulted in (a) court-ordered doctoral and new academic programs, (b) nearly $600 million in new funding (beyond the regular state appropriations), and (c) endowment money for Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University.
Richard Arrington, Jr., the City of Birmingham’s first black mayor, was my next stop along the road of greatness. Arrington expanded the breath and depth of my exposure to the interaction of civil rights activism with the governance of a major municipality. Mayor Hayden launched my municipal law career. Arrington took it to the stratosphere. Arrington was a brilliant, fearless, and hard working leader. I spent 15 years learning at the feet of this civil rights icon and political guru. He was the first person I knew who kept a computer printout on how much money he directed to minority participation on city contracts. Arrington’s empowerment of the black business community in Birmingham was second to none.
When I expanded my waste-to-energy business internationally in 2007, I met Charles Barkley. His mother, Ms. Charcey Glenn, was a civil rights icon in Leeds, Alabama. Ms. Glenn, who passed in June 2015, brought Charles to my office for an introduction. She and I had become friends several years earlier. I have known many former athletes in my life, but Charles is a close friend, a brilliant businessman, a consummate professional, a business partner, and a great human being. From Charles, I learned how to create, expand, and maintain a positive international brand for my businesses.
I met Dr. Maya Angelou through my brother Levi, who was her friend and doctor. I enjoyed my many private moments with Dr. Angelou. We laughed, talked, cried, and rejoiced for hours. Our lives were bound by a common experience - we both yearned to be free. I have tried to live my life by being true to her many inspirational words and deeds. She was a good friend and mentor. She was greatness on a world stage. Because of Dr. Angelou, I know why the caged bird sings.
In 2015, I met Dr. Saadiq El-Amin, III, M.D., and Ph.D. while he was visiting Atlanta. Dr. El-Amin is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and internationally known expert in sports medicine. Dr. El-Amin, 49, has taken bone and tissue medicine to a new level with his pioneering work in orthopedic medicine, molecular and cell biology, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, concussions, and advanced biomaterials.
Dr. El-Amin received his M.D. and Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. He received his orthopedic surgery training at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Dr. El-Amin founded the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Advanced Biomaterials at Southern Illinois University. He holds patents in the following medical research areas: (a) 3-dimensional polyphosphazene matrices, (b) muscle-polymer constructs for tissue engineering, (c) injectable ceramics for spinal fusion, and (d) cAMP-based molecules for bone growth.
Beyond his impressive intellectual acumen and ground-breaking work in medical research, Dr. El-Amin is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth, and caring human beings I have ever met. Whether his patient is the president of a nation, a celebrity athlete, or a working-class American, every one of them receives the “best of the best” in medical care from this gifted physician.
My journey along the road of greatness has been exhilarating. I hope it continues for a long time.