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Human rights defenders honor King with truth

By Christy Oglesby

Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's book, "Speak Truth to Power," is the basis for a performance at the King Center.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Civil Rights
Martin Sheen
Sean Penn

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The light comes up slowly, and before you see a face, you hear a voice.

From the stage at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, you hear:

"I want to be free of these memories. My name is Dianna Ortiz."

Actress Robin Wright Penn reads the words as she portrays the nun police in Guatemala kidnapped, burned, raped and tortured.

As Ortiz, Penn recounts hanging by her wrist above a pit full of decaying corpses and people near death.

The performance is one of several biographies featured in the play "Speak Truth to Power," which anchors activities this weekend in Atlanta to commemorate the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 76 Saturday.

The play, based on Kerry Kennedy's book that bears the same name, is meant to honor people Kennedy describes as defenders of freedom -- people who fight against police brutality, genital mutilation, torture, sex slavery and child labor.

Woody Harrelson, Martin Sheen, Alfre Woodard, Kenny Leon, Sean Penn and Pearl Cleage portray the present day freedom fighters, and Kennedy says their participation honors King's memory and people who dare to stand up.

"It's such a tribute to Martin Luther King," Kennedy said, "that all of these actors who have been given this tremendous gift are using that in order to amplify the voices of people who are the Martin Luther Kings of our times."

Kennedy, the daughter of the late U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said the play and her book are particularly relevant now.

"We have an attorney general [nominee] who during his Senate confirmation hearing is unable to say torture is illegal, and we will not practice torture," Kennedy said, referring to the hearings of Alberto Gonzales.

"I mean, he is going to be confirmed as the attorney general. To me this is so terrifying. My father was the attorney general when Martin Luther King was in prison in a Birmingham jail."

Honoring defenders

The defenders in Kennedy's book come from many countries, including China, Russia, Mexico, the United States and India. And their causes are as varied as their backgrounds.

Kennedy said her selections illustrate the global breadth of human rights violations. But she isn't discouraged by current suffering, she said.

"When I started working in human rights 20 years ago, military dictators ruled throughout Latin America. Today the only one left standing is [Fidel] Castro in Cuba," Kennedy said.

"At the time, communism dominated Eastern Europe. Today the last of those communists, Slobodan Milosevic, is on trial in the Hague.

"... All of those changes took place, not because governments wanted them to ... not because armies wanted to, but because individual human beings ... said 'enough.' "

And the people in her book have done the same, she said. They include Harry Wu, who was in Atlanta Friday speaking to schoolchildren.

Wu spent 19 years as a political prisoner in China, and during that time he said that unlike King he didn't dare to dream.

"If you dream for freedom, if you dream for love, if you dream for your future, that is not good because that causes pain and suffering," Wu said.

Human rights means something different in China, where he said women are not free to choose how many children they will have. And under that oppression, he said, dreams are torturous.

But since he became an American citizen, Wu said he dares to harbor hope.

"I dream now. I have a dream. It's my boy," he says as he displays pictures of his 6-year-old son. "He's my dream."

Wu shared the podium with Van Jones, executive director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, California.

Jones' organization works to expose human rights violations that law enforcement officers in the United States commit, and to challenge abuses in the criminal justice system.

"I think every American century has its moral struggle, its moral dilemma," Jones said in an interview after his speech to schoolchildren Friday.

"In the 1800s, it was the enslavement of African people. In the 1900s, it was Jim Crow and segregation. And in the new century, it's the incarceration industry which created these slave ships on dry land called prisons. That's the new Jim Crow."

Marina Pisklakova, who created Russia's first domestic violence hotline, also joined Wu and Jones Friday.

She embraced Kennedy's designation as a defender, she said, because it reminds the world of the ongoing problem of spousal abuse.

"The brilliance of this project is that it is really visible," Pisklakova said. "When the exhibition and and the play travel around the world and tell the story of human rights defenders, we bring the issues to the surface."

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