07/14/08 — Commission member helped take care of MLK's dream in N.C.

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Commission member helped take care of MLK's dream in N.C.

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 14, 2008 1:56 PM

Earnest Waters has been a long-time admirer of Martin Luther King Jr., even once having the opportunity to hear the minister in person.

And after 12 years of serving the state's Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, he is looking back at an historic term -- and at how far his state has come in preserving and fostering King's "dream."

"I saw Dr. King when he spoke at Memorial Auditorium back in the early '60s. I was in the audience," Waters said. "I was always impressed with him."

He did, however, meet the civil rights leader's father, Martin Luther King Sr.

"We were on vacation, my wife and children and I, at Six Flags Over Georgia," he recalls. "I had seen his father in Ebony magazine.

"He was being guarded by a white guy. I went over to him and asked if he was Martin Luther King Sr. I shook hands with him. About that time, his wife came and got him, so I never got a chance to talk with him, he was so surrounded."

Years later, Waters was invited to serve on the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. In 1996, then-Governor Jim Hunt appointed him to the commission that had been formed the year before.

He just completed his third four-year term, serving with 16 members from across the state. Waters was the only member from Wayne County.

The commission's purpose is to assist municipalities and county government with information about King, to maintain his philosophy and to keep his dream alive.

The term limit was supposed to end at eight years, but Waters became the first to serve 12 years when Gov. Easley reappointed him to the term which just ended July 1.

In a dozen years, Waters never missed a meeting.

"I always made arrangements for the meeting because I thought it was a very important meeting," he said. "I always tried to bring something to the table during the meetings and discussions."

Many a time, he recalls, there might have been members who wanted to focus on different things, prompting him to speak up as elder statesman.

"I'd remind them, 'We're here to concentrate on the legacy of Dr. King,'" he says.

He formerly worked at Cherry Hospital and at the Sylvania plant in Smithfield, where he was involved in the civil rights movement. He later became self-employed as a builder-developer of a subdivision, Tiffany Gardens, whose streets bear several family members' names.

While on the commission, he was chairman of the grants committee. An estimated $75,000 in grants were awarded across the state annually. Among local recipients have been the WARM Hearts program at the Family Y, city of Goldsboro's annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast and an after school program at Brogden Middle School.

"I was proud to serve on the commission because I felt like I was giving something back for the blessings I had in this country," Waters said. "I'll miss it but I feel good about what I did, and proud of being able to sit down and discuss the plight of race in the country."

Gov. Hunt really pushed for the commission, he said. And it's been a good thing in terms of continuing the message once promoted by Dr. King.

"I have always believed in all people, because we're all God's children and all people should be treated equal. I have always fought discrimination in my own way. I have had some heated discussion with guys I did business with. That's my testimony, that I could discus those types of issues any time of day."

At 70, Waters has been witness to many changes over the years, but it has taken time.

"(King) once said in a speech that it would take 50 years for us to realize a significant change," he said. "Now I'm seeing that change. It's been about 50 years since he said that."

But there is still much to be done, Waters said.

"I know I won't live long enough to see it all but it's just a joy in my heart to see the progress and the changes and changes in people's attitudes, both black and white," he said. "I'm hoping one day we won't need a commission."