Ohio National Guard News

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Hosting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the family dinner table

Story by Stephanie Beougher, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs

Family photo with Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a frequent dinner guest at the Cleveland home of Julia Freeman (sixth from right), grandmother of Ohio National Guard Lt. Col. Jeffrey Watkins. In this photo, believed to have been taken outside Freeman's home in the summer or fall of 1967, King (center) is pictured with several members of Watkins' Family and friends. (Courtesy photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (01/16/18) — Ohio Army National Guard Lt. Col. Jeffrey Watkins grew up hearing stories about his Family’s famous periodic dinner guest — civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“My Uncle Bill was active in the civil rights movement, and through a connection in his church he ‘volunteered’ my Grandmother Julia Freeman’s house to host Dr. King for dinner when he visited Cleveland.”

King was a frequent visitor to Cleveland in the 1960s, which meant frequent meals at Watkins’ grandmother’s house. Photos of one of those visits in 1967 were discovered by a cousin as recently as 15 years ago. Watkins never had a chance to meet King. He was just a year old and living with his Family at a U.S. Army base in Germany in 1968 when an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of the civil rights icon.

“I am slightly jealous of several of my older cousins because they were able to take pictures and sit down and listen, as well as ask questions directly, to Dr. King. At the time, they did not know what he and his message would evolve into,” Watkins said.

Watkins joined the Ohio National Guard in 1986 and is currently the brigade administrative officer for the 73rd Troop Command in Columbus. He points to influences from his Family, Dr. King’s teachings and growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in a suburb of Cleveland as reasons why he’s able to see beyond the color of a person’s skin. He’s taught those values to his children, Jaila, 10, and Jasmin, 5.

Watkins was among a group of Ohio National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who attended the 33rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Breakfast Jan. 15 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in downtown Columbus. Event organizers say it is the largest of its kind in the U.S. to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader.

“As time passes and the current day becomes more distant from the time people like Dr. King became our heroes, it is important to remember that these are our heroes because they symbolize the strength of the common people against all possible odds,” Watkins said. “Dr. King gave us all hope and still today we have hope — not just for blacks, but for all people.”

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