Posted: Jan. 16, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

State Rep. Hazel D. Plant usually sits quietly at her desk in the last row during legislative sessions, but on the day that Delaware celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she takes a back seat to no one.

Plant, a Wilmington Democrat, and the Organization of Minority Women host a breakfast that has grown into a premier event, and the one this year was the grandest of all.

From its origins 22 years ago in a church hall with about 70 participants, the breakfast on Monday morning had to be moved to the cavernous Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington to accommodate about 800 people.

"We have outgrown every other place," Plant said.

Plant herself has a special reason to appreciate the way the breakfast has prospered to the point it has to be held in a hall typically known for drawing the best chamber-of-commerce and black-tie political occasions.

State Rep. Al O. Plant Sr., her late husband whose seat she took after his death in 2000, was the prime sponsor of the bill making King's birthday a state holiday. It was not easy -- not in a place that has been described as a "northern state with a southern exposure." It took a protracted struggle lasting about 20 years before the legislature voted in 1984 to recognize King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

The breakfast got big using the same combination that King used to power the civil rights movement -- politics, education and religion. Especially politics. The breakfast, a tribute not only to King but to Wilmington's African-American community, is virtually a command performance for the state's political leadership.

The entire congressional delegation -- Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper and Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle -- was there, as were Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, all three of them Democrats, plus a number of state legislators and New Castle County and Wilmington officials.

Speaking roles for politicians are prized and hard to come by, and this time they went to Biden as well as Markell, who is also the chair of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, and Christopher A. Coons, the Democratic New Castle County executive.

The remarks are supposed to be brief, even Biden's, and his were. In his few minutes, though, he managed to make amends for the past -- with a lighthearted reference to the Alito hearings as he began by saying, "As you all know, I'm accustomed to speaking" -- and to put in a plug for the future by telling the crowd that his son Beau, the Democrats' candidate for attorney general, was absent because he was attending another King event at Delaware State University.

The breakfast needed a keynote speaker equal to its size, and it found one in Christopher A. Bullock, the pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Wilmington.

Bullock also is part religion, part education and part politics -- an advanced-degreed preacher who is a Republican, recently recruited by the party to run against Carper this year. He turned it down, but never mind. He is still a candidate waiting to happen.

Bullock did not let his listeners get comfortable. Once upon a time, Al Plant used to call Delaware a plantation state, and although Bullock prettied up the language, his message was largely the same.

"Delaware is the northern tip of the Old South. We've still got work to do," Bullock said.

"Nobody in this room has made it on your own. Don't you get amnesia. . . . Just because we've got a few blacks in the suites doesn't mean everything's all right in the streets. The suites and the streets have to come together."

This year the suites and the streets came together at the Riverfront. King's legacy has moved them that far, at least.