Lunchtime Episode Lit Geri Allen's Civil Rights Fire

`WERE you ever beat up?'' asks a slim young girl with braces and long dangling earrings? ``Several times,'' replies Geri Allen, a chubby woman with rosy cheeks and a mop of white hair. Rubbing a red line on her left temple, she says, ``This scar came from the Selma March in '65.'' Rolling up her pants leg and pointing to her left knee, she says, ``This is where a police dog bit me in Birmingham in '63.''

Mrs. Allen, a longtime advocate of civil rights, led one of the strategy groups at the recent youth conferences on nonviolence held here at the King Center. The short, jolly woman who says she's ``old enough to know better, but too young to care'' looks more like Mrs. Claus, dressed in an aqua pantsuit and tennis shoes, than a veteran of the movement.

But she worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., from the early '60s until the time of his death, and has served on the board of the King Center for the past 16 years. She and the Rev. James Orange of St. Peter's Baptist Church of Atlanta piloted the first youth workshop program three years ago.

The young girl with the earrings persists, ``What did you do when you were being beat up and attacked?'' Allen looks above and says, ``I prayed - sometimes to myself and sometimes out loud.''

A boy wearing a baseball cap and red tennis shorts wants to know why she, a white woman, got interested in civil rights. She recalls an experience she and her young daughter had eating lunch one day at Woolworth's in Atlanta. ``We watched three black construction workers, standing at the end of the counter being ignored by the waitress as they tried to order. They waited and waited to order, but they finally had to leave to get back to their job.

``My daughter, who had just turned nine, asked me if I thought that was right, and I said, `No, but that's the way things are in the South.' She asked me, `Why?' and I didn't know what to say.''

Four months after the lunchtime experience, Allen, who was born and raised in San Francisco but has lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years, decided to respond to her daughter's challenge and get involved. ``I drove to Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.'s church, thinking a white person has no business in this part of town. When I walked in, the first person I saw was Dr. King, and he put me to work sending out pamphlets.''

``What was Martin Luther King like?'' ask several T-shirted teens at once.

``He was grand to be around,'' Allen says. ``He laughed, joked, and loved to eat. He had infinite patience - he was brilliant, but still down home. He could talk to anyone.

But maybe, most important of all, he was a master at communicating his vision. He could give hope to the hopeless, even if it were something as simple as being allowed to get a drink of water at a public fountain.''

Then with a thoughtful look to her young listeners, she says, ``You know, we helped change the map of the world, and you can, too. The only thing that holds you back is your own energy and determination.''

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