Bernard Hopkins spent most of his professional life battling what he perceived as injustice and inequality. Thus, it is somehow kind of fitting that the longtime middleweight champion shares a birthday with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hopkins turned 46 on Saturday – the day that the legendary civil rights leader would have been 82. Hopkins went to see the film "The Fighter" on his birthday along with wife Bernadette and daughter Latrece.
The real celebration for the Hopkins family, though, came on Monday, when the Martin Luther King Day holiday is celebrated. Hopkins kept his daughter home from school out of respect for King's memory.
"This is a very important day in the history of this country, and I want her to be at home reflecting upon what it means," Hopkins said. "Maybe it's reading something. Maybe it's doing work around the house or doing some extra homework. But whatever it is, I want her home to emphasize to her how special and important this holiday is."
King was long an inspiration to Hopkins. His childhood home in the projects of inner-city Philadelphia had a large framed portrait on the wall of a pensive King with his right hand cupping his chin, a finger on his cheek.
King's final speech, often referred to as the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, is one that most stirs Hopkins. King delivered the speech the night before he was assassinated – April 3, 1968 – in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.
Hopkins said he was inspired by King's words as he fought in his own life for fairness. Hopkins was notorious for much of his boxing career for his feuds with promoters and managers for what he believed was unfair treatment.
In King's final speech, he urged those who listened to support the striking sanitation workers. King said, "The question is not, 'If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?' The question is, 'If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?' That is the question."
That speech, and those particular words, touched Hopkins, who said he recalled King again and again throughout his career as he raged against a system he felt was unfairly stacked against him.
"Dr. King was ahead of his time and we've come a long way, and things have gotten better," Hopkins said. "Some things have actually changed. I share a birthday with a great man who had a great spirit, who did great deeds and had a great work ethic.
"What better person to come up through the ranks of boxing and challenge what I believed was injustice in certain things than a guy born on the same day as Dr. King? To me, it's an inspiring legacy."
Emanuel Steward, now a Hall of Fame trainer and expert analyst on HBO's boxing broadcasts, was a 23-year-old working for Detroit Edison pulling cables when he learned of King's assassination from his foreman.
Steward, 66, was born and raised in West Virginia and moved to Detroit with his family when he was 11. He said he never suffered the kind of racial discrimination that those in the South, in particular, were subjected to, but said he still regarded King as a hero.
What touched Steward about King was that he backed his words with action and sacrificed greatly to advance the civil rights agenda.
"He was and is, of all the great black leaders, the only one I really respected and looked up to," Steward said by telephone from Tampa, Fla., where he is training Miguel Cotto for a March 12 fight in Las Vegas with Ricardo Mayorga. "He didn't just talk, he sacrificed. He was beaten. He went to jail. There were guys who were black leaders who loved to talk and were great orators, but when it came to sacrificing or acting on what they were preaching about, were quick to disappear.
"[King] was an inspiration because he was a man of principle and conviction. He was a true hero in this world."
King's greatness is measured, in part, by the fact that his words still inspire millions, even those who were born years after his death.
Unbeaten boxer Devon Alexander, who meets Timothy Bradley in the year's first big fight on Jan. 29 in Pontiac, Mich., was born 19 years after King's assassination. King, though, also has touched Alexander's life.
Alexander said King's teachings have shaped him and helped him to be the man he has become.
"Martin Luther King is legendary," Alexander said. "Without him, I don't believe things would be like they are today. We might still be struggling for basic equality. He was a major figure in the black community. He taught non-violence and tried to make peace between people. No drama. He just wanted to bring people together. All Americans should be proud of who he was and what he stood for. It made him a world figure, a historical figure.
"His influence on me in particular is that I remember him telling black people to be proud and not to be ashamed of who you are. It sounds simple, and it is, but it's also very important. He always said everybody should be treated equally. I like all races and people and believe in equality. No man should get better treatment simply based on their race or color, and I think Dr. King taught me that in the words he wrote, the way he spoke and the way he led people. He was a great leader for all Americans. … I have the opportunity every day to go out and achieve whatever I want to, and it is because of him that I get that chance."
- Bernard Hopkins
- Martin Luther King