Sherry Frank Earns King’s Salute to Greatness Award
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Sherry Frank Earns King’s Salute to Greatness Award

Two Jewish leaders, one a champion of Black-Jewish relations in Atlanta, received the prestigious 36th annual Salute to Greatness Award Jan. 19 from The King Center.

Sherry Frank, middle, with Bernice King and Christine King Farris.
Sherry Frank, middle, with Bernice King and Christine King Farris.

Two Jewish leaders, one a champion of Black-Jewish relations in Atlanta, received the prestigious 36th annual Salute to Greatness Award Jan. 19 from The King Center. Sherry Frank, a community activist and former head of the American Jewish Committee Atlanta, and Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus of Starbucks, received the award, which celebrates people and organizations committed to the principles and philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Five others also received awards, including NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo and, posthumously, U.S. Sen. John McCain, who died in August.

The semi-formal awards ceremony was held at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel.

“This award means so much to me,” Frank said. “I’ve lived my entire life fighting for the civil rights of all people.”

To Frank, the award is not only a recognition of her civil rights activism, but also a symbol of the unique journey that she and her family have had with the King family’s legacy.

Frank grew up during a time when “black only” and “white only” signs were familiar hallmarks of downtown Atlanta. However, Frank was nurtured in an environment that craved social justice.

“I had a strong sense of right and wrong from a very early age. My uncle Joe Zimmerman owned Zimmerman’s men’s shop, and it was one of maybe two stores in downtown Atlanta that allowed African-Americans to try on clothes. When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he was wearing one of my uncle’s shirts. That shirt is on display at The King Center. I learned how to be fair to people by watching the examples of family members like my uncle,” Frank said.

Award recipients Dikembe Mutombo and Sherry Frank with Bernice King.

When her uncle died, Martin Luther King Sr. preached at his funeral because of his fairness towards African-Americans.

During the 1950s and 60s, many Jewish people saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inclusive leadership as an inspiration and an opportunity to boldly confront and eliminate long-standing racism, she said.

“I was a teenager during the 60s, and I saw the discrimination of African-Americans, but I started to see changes. I saw the sit-ins, and I saw the young African-American students protest against the segregated stores. I was determined to be part of that change.

“I joined the National Council of Jewish Women and we went to inner city schools and taught students cultural immersion, reading, arts, and the importance of having equal rights.”

As early as the late 1800s, Jewish organizations such as NCJW and AJC have been committed to helping the marginalized and the downtrodden in the community, she said. Frank strongly believes that her success as an activist has been tied to being involved in organizations with strong mission statements and with involved, like-minded, people.

In 1982, Frank used her organization skills to mobilize African-Americans and Jews to campaign for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which was extended with special provisions by then-President Ronald Reagan.

“It was in 1982 that I and Congressman John Lewis helped to form the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition as a way for Jews and African-Americans to rekindle the camaraderie of the civil rights movement and to have meaningful dialogue and social interactions,” Frank said. This year marks 37 years of the AJC educating and advocating for the community.

Frank’s activism and friendship with Lewis led her to make frequent visits to The King Center, where she met Coretta Scott King.

Frank with her grandchildren and basketball player and humanitarian Mutombo.

“Mrs. King and I started working closely together. I marched with her on many major events, including the March on Washington anniversaries. In 1987, I marched with her to Forsyth County to protest the Klan, who had earlier that year attacked a group of African-American activists, including Hosea Williams. I visited Jewish activists in the former Soviet Union, and King’s vision and dreams were strong in the hearts and minds of many Russians,” Frank said.

When Frank went to the former Soviet Union, Mrs. King gave her three signed books about her husband’s life and asked her to give each book to a woman whose husband was incarcerated. The Jewish Russian women appreciated Mrs. King’s encouragement.

“Mrs. King died in 2006 and I spoke at her funeral. I admired her. She was such a strong, consistent voice against all forms of prejudice,” Frank said.

Frank believes the Salute to Greatness Award represents a full circle of her activist life.

All of Frank’s children, spouses and eight grandchildren attended the event.

“I really wanted my grandchildren to see how rewarding life can be if you serve and protect others.”

Sherry Frank’s grandchildren attend the awards gala.

A tribute film about Frank, which played at the event, made her very sentimental and brought back a flood of memories. She thought about how fulfilling her life has been and the relationships she has built through strong Jewish social justice organizations and intimate relationships with people from all races.

Frank wrote her memoirs as a lasting legacy to her family and grandchildren. The book, “A Passion to Serve: Memoirs of a Jewish Activist,” will be available next month.

She also wants her family and grandchildren to see a new documentary by filmmaker Shari Rogers, “Shared Legacies.” The film, which premieres next year, details the often untold but complex relationship between African-Americans and Jews in America.

“As I look at the world today, I don’t like the division I see,” Franks said.

However, Frank believes that the younger generation, including her grandchildren, will rise up and embody the loving spirit of King and be the springboards that inspire future generations.

Inspiration was something the Kings embodied. Mrs. King created the Salute to Greatness Award in 1983. If alive today, she’d be proud that her deserving friend received the award this year.

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