In 1968, John Jenkins did what few people have ever done. He introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. when the nation’s civil rights leader spoke at Jenkins’ high school in Newark, New Jersey. Jenkins was a sophomore in late March when King addressed his South Side High School classmates.
Jenkins earned the honor of introducing King because he was president of the school’s student council. King was an Alabama minister who became the nation’s leading civil rights advocate in the late 1950s and 1960s preaching peaceful civil disobedience.
But as a teenager, Jenkins was more aligned with another message from the African-American community: “Burn, baby, burn.” Newark joined Los Angeles and Detroit in having a major riot during the 1960s. In 1967, Newark, a city of approximately 400,000, was one of a few with a majority African-American population. The Newark Riot occurred between July 12 and 17, 1967. Six days of rioting, looting and destruction left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. Like other American cities with large African-American populations, blacks felt disenfranchised due to racial profiling, and a lack of jobs and educational opportunities, according to published reports.
Eight months later, King told South Side High students to reject the popular mantra “burn, baby, burn” and embrace another, “learn, baby, learn.”
“Before he spoke I was more burn, baby, burn but after, his message inspired me to have a dream worth working to achieve,” he said.
Jenkins was already on the path toward higher education. His mother fearing he’d end up in a gang as a youth encouraged him to join a club. Jenkins pursued karate and eventually became a world champion in the martial arts. His prowess earned him entry into the World Karate Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Maine, Lewiston and Auburn sports Halls of Fame. His mother’s influence also resulted him in being an excellent student.
In 1970, he entered Bates College as a freshman. In the 1980s, Jenkins entered politics. He won a seat in the Maine Senate representing Lewiston. He is also the only person to serve both Lewiston and Auburn as mayor.
In 1986, Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday. Jenkins has been the main speaker at several MLK breakfasts throughout the state. Each MLK Day, Jenkins reflects upon the civil rights leader’s legacy.
“I reflect upon what a just and more inclusive society should be. We should all do that all year long, not just on Martin Luther King Day,” he said.
In 1982, Jenkins worked as Bates College’s director of housing. He met a fellow Bates alumnus who had a profound impact on Martin Luther King’s life. Dr. Benjamin A. Mays was a 1920 Bates graduate. He became a professor and later president at Morehead College in Georgia. The college’s most famous graduate was King, for whom Mays served as a mentor.
“It was truly amazing meeting two men who had such a profound impact on the civil rights movement,” Jenkins said. “Meeting and introducing Dr. King was especially profound for me. It was a once in a lifetime experience because it happened only a few days before his assassination.”
Jenkins briefly lived in Boothbay Harbor teaching tai chi classes before moving to Rockland. He has taught at Lincoln Academy for the past two years. He teaches a self defense and public speaking class.