Speaker tells of meeting Martin Luther King — and living, humorously, with pain

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — When you go to a speech in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you don’t expect hilarity.

You don’t expect the guest lecturer to flirt, in front of everybody, with the program director.

But Chicago-born Debbie Wooten did that and then some.

She’s a comedian who calls Tacoma home now, when she’s not traveling and opening for the likes of Gladys Knight and Jamie Foxx.

Wooten was the guest speaker in Peninsula College’s Studium Generale — a free lecture open to the public each Thursday — leading up to the King holiday.

She came with plenty to recommend her, not least her vivid memory of meeting King himself.

He came to Chicago in 1967, the year before he was assassinated. Wooten, 10 years old, went to the park with her father that day.

“We saw Dr. King standing on a makeshift stage, in his white short-sleeved shirt,” Wooten began.

Her dad, “much like a linebacker,” brought her all the way through the crowd, until the little girl was standing on that stage.

“Dr. King took my hand and said, ‘How you doin,’ baby?’” Wooten recalled.

“Oh, I’m just fine,” the youngster replied, about to scream for joy.

King truly saw her, Wooten believes. He didn’t see the braces on her legs, braces she had worn since she was a baby who had contracted polio.

He didn’t see the way she walked due to spinal disease.

King simply extended his hand.

Wooten still wears heavy braces on both legs, now that she is a self-described “ol’ lady.”

She made much of this status, and made the Little Theater full of people laugh heartily with her stories — about growing up a “crippled” child, as she was called in the 1950s, and then about raising her own family.

Early in her talk, Wooten requested a different chair, since the one she’d been given wasn’t working for her.

Rick Ross, director of student programs at Peninsula College, leaped up to bring her a new chair.

“White chocolate,” Wooten, who is black, said admiringly of Ross, who is white. He smiled and bowed his head.

Wooten’s irreverence carried over into her description of growing up.

She did not paint a pretty picture of her household. Her mother was stuck in an abusive marriage, suffered from depression, didn’t drive, and self-medicated with alcohol.

Yet Wooten found a role model: Miss Butler, the mother of a classmate.

“She was never condescending to me. She treated me as equal to her own daughter,” Wooten remembered, adding that Miss Butler was also a big woman who shared big joy in living: She wore bright, flowery dresses, did her hair up pretty and drove around in a big station wagon.

Miss Butler was fully herself, Wooten said. “Without her changing who she was, she changed me.

“I said, ‘I want to be a big mama who drives a car — and look what happened,” Wooten said, raising a hand high.

She’s the mother of five grown children, including two daughters: a nurse and an Evergreen State College professor.

Like Miss Butler, “each of us has that life-changing power,” in the way we treat others.

“You can change someone’s life,” Wooten declared, “just through your everyday behavior.”

King’s dream was for people to be judged by their character and not by the color of their skin.

That dream was shattered when King was shot in 1968, Wooten acknowledged.

To her, “shattered” means a lot of little pieces, pieces each person can pick up.

Refuse to be victimized, she told her audience.

Some of us have what she calls a “victim tape” playing in our heads. Don’t listen to it.she said.

And pay no mind to people saying you “can’t” do this, “can’t” do that, Wooten added.

Instead focus on the many things you can do.

Use your positive attitude, she instructed, to “turn that victim tape into a victory shout.”


Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 20. 2013 5:57PM
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