CLEVELAND - Former Cleveland Mayor Michael White remembered slain civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as "a powerful voice unafraid to speak alone."
"Young people in this audience, don't ever let anybody tell you what you can't be, what you can't do or where you can't go," White told nearly 500 people who gathered at Cuyahoga Community College's Metropolitan campus Sunday to celebrate King's birthday.
White, who was mayor for 12 years before leaving office more than a year ago, said King's actions helped guide him from a modest, working-class boyhood to become the city's longest-serving mayor.
King would have turned 74 last Wednesday. His birthday became a federal holiday in 1983 and was commemorated nationwide Monday.
His name on buildings and street signs in Ohio are constant reminders of the man who elevated a nation and brought about sweeping social change.
"It's an affirmation in recognition of Dr. King and an affirmation of the African-American presence," said Kenneth Goings, a professor and chairman of the African-American and African Studies Department at Ohio State University. "It's a connection between the great civil-rights movement and everyday people."
Nationwide, hundreds of buildings, 110 schools and more than 500 streets have been named after the civil-rights leader since his assassination in 1968, according to Derek Alderman, assistant
professor of geography at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
King has about as many things named for him as President Kennedy, although the number is small when compared with Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
The Martin Luther King Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library has a black-heritage collection.
"It's a vital and integral part of the community. It's where students and lifelong learners come to find out about different cultures," said Gay Banks, former branch manager of the King library.
For some, the holiday brings back fond memories of King.
At age 93, Rabbi Armond Cohen still smokes three cigars a day, usually in his temple office, which looks much as it did 35 years ago when he enjoyed his most memorable smoke.
He wags a finger toward the black vinyl chair across from his desk where King sat Sept. 24, 1967. The second chair was taken by King's top aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. An overflow crowd awaited King in the hall of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, but there was still time to chat with the rabbi who had invited King to speak.
"I generally smoke in my office, and I took out my cigar and I started to smoke," Cohen recalled, flashing a wistful smile. "I offered him one. It was a good Havana cigar. He took it and he thanked me."
As he lit King's cigar, Cohen said, a look of astonishment crossed Abernathy's face.
"In about four minutes, he (King) jumped up and ran to the bathroom," Cohen said. "Abernathy laughed."
"He's sick to his stomach," Abernathy told Cohen. "He's never smoked a cigar before in his life."
"Why in the world did he take it?" Cohen recalled asking.
"Rabbi, he's a very polite man," Abernathy said. "You offered and you lit the match. He didn't want to offend you."
King was well known in Cleveland. His frequent speeches and voter registration drives gave many in Cleveland a chance to meet him.