- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

For lifelong "rabble-rouser" and human rights advocate Marilyn Preston Killingham, no gift could be greater than the convening of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, to coincide with her birthday today.
"Last year when I spoke in Geneva in the United Nations, I learned of the World Conference Against Racism and I could not believe that God was granting me such a birthday present for my 68th birthday," said "Mother Marilyn" from the lobby of her Southwest apartment.
"Since I was a 10th-grader, I have fought for the elimination of racism and white supremacy. No definition disputes can stop this idea whose time has finally come — U.S. official presence or not," she said.
Most Washingtonians "in the struggle" for civil rights, tenants' rights and for self-determination for the District (which she dubbed the "Last Plantation"), easily recognize Marilyn Preston Killingham by her stunning face, her shocking silvery mane, her colorful Afrocentric costumes and headdresses and the ever-present wheelchair that befits her more like a throne than a crutch.
"Hey, Fredericka," shouts a fellow tenant advocate. "I call her Fredericka after Frederick Douglass," the young man explains. Neither the physical nor the philosophical resemblance to the great 19th-century Washington abolitionist is lost on this observer.
"I'm a revolutionary. My quest is to bring about change and I find it impossible to believe that the system can be changed from within; it must change from without," Mrs. Killingham said.
An active member of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Northwest and of several ecumenical councils including the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, Mrs. Killingham said, "The way I experience my Christianity is being the kind of person who doesn't mind speaking out about the things I perceive that are wrong. … That's my ministry."
Rare is the protest against the treatment of the disabled, the downtrodden or the disenfranchised held in the District where the genteel "Mother Marilyn," deputy chairwoman of the Umoja Party, is not present despite her own physical problems.
Yet, her involvement in national issues such as reparations for slavery and in global issues such as the self-determination of indigenous peoples is lesser known.
At the National Urban League convention held in the District last month, Mrs. Killingham was "thrilled" to appear on a panel with University of Maryland political science Professor Ronald Walters and commentator Julianne Malveaux to discuss the international racism conference and the surrounding controversy.
Mrs. Killingham offered the insights she gathered from participating in the U.N. racism conference planning meeting last August in Geneva. Her remarks to the U.N. subcommission on the promotion and protection of human rights were printed in "In the Pursuit of The Right to Self-Determination," by Y.N. Kly.
"When I talked about no vote [in the District], they gasped because they were truly shocked at that," she said.
Mrs. Killingham also used the opportunity to highlight the status of the 33-year-old Republic of New Afrika movement, of which she is the former chairwoman. The RNA's pending lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims seeking reparations was filed under her leadership.
"Some kind of acknowledgment must be done [about slavery]. They've done it for everybody else and we must demand that it be done for us," she said as the founding chairwoman of the D.C. Chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). "So many people don't understand how insane racism is and the harm it's doing to people. The vestiges of slavery are still here."
Yet, Mrs. Killingham cautions that "we can't wallow" after we look at "the sickness of the system." However, "we got to go there and then go forward from that space."
Initially, Mrs. Killingham thought President Bush's administration was "bluffing" when it threatened to sit out the Durban conference because of its opposition to discussions of reparations and conference language equating Zionism to racism.
Yesterday, she expressed disappointment that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is not attending the anti-racism conference because "just his presence would add stature to our claim."
Now her prayer is that the United States will change its mind. "I really think we should be at the table," she said. If nothing else, an official U.S. delegation might "tone down" some of the rhetoric.
Many are fooled by the hushed tones and gracious demeanor that earned "Mother Marilyn" the respected-elder status in the community. But for her failing health, Mrs. Killingham would have accepted a sponsorship and been in Durban today raising a ruckus with the best of them in her unique way.
Mrs. Killingham, a Nashville, Tenn., native who grew up in Gary, Ind., spent several years in the Chicago civil rights circles and was proudly run out of Mississippi, is first and foremost an educator. Her conversation is replete with historical lessons. "I think education is the solution to all our problems," she says.
Her interest in civil rights began at an early age when her great-grandmother, Sarah Turpin Graham, allowed workers to hold secret meetings in the living room of their home near Fisk University. Her great-aunt, Callie Fulbright, also regaled her with stories about working with black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
"I came from a long line of people who wanted to be free," she said of her experiences "trying to liberate our people."
A self-described expert of "Afrikan-centered education," Mrs. Killingham has taught classes from kindergarten to college in the United States and Japan. She headed numerous training programs including the Poland Spring Job Corps Center in Maine. And, she was the first black systemwide administrator in Fairfax County schools when they first desegregated in the mid-'60s.
While she might not be spending her 68th birthday in Durban, she's certain someone will call her with an up-to-the-minute report.
"I'll be there in spirit if not in body, and the issues so close to me will be addressed and I expect strong recommendations will be made," she said happily. "I'm just glad I've lived this long to see what I think is going to be an honest look at racism."


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