If you go

MLK service

WHAT: 42nd annual MLK Tri-County Ecumenical Service featuring the Rev. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, the Charleston Southern University Gospel Choir, presentation of the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award and more.

WHERE: Morris Street Baptist Church, 25 Morris St., Charleston

WHEN: Today, 3 p.m. reception, 4 p.m. worship service

Cost: Reservations are required for the reception; the event is free and open to the public

MORE INFO: Call 722-1644 or go to ywca-charlestonsc.org or morrisstreetbaptist.org.

MLK Parade

WHAT: MLK Holiday Parade and Youth Speakout

WHERE: Parade starts at Burke High School, 244 President St. in Charleston, and ends at the King Street side of Marion Square. Youth Speakout is at the YWCA, 106 Coming St., Charleston

WHEN: Monday, parade starts at 11 a.m., youth speakout follows at 12:30 p.m.

COST: All events free and open to the public.

MORE INFO: Call 722-1644 or go to ywca-charlestonsc.org.

MLK Breakfast

WHAT: MLK Business and Professional Breakfast featuring Michael B. Moore, chairman of Glory Foods Inc.

WHERE: Charleston Marriott Hotel, 170 Lockwood Dr., Charleston

WHEN: Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.

cost: $40 for individual reservations; corporate tables are various costs

MORE INFO: Call 722-1644 or go to ywca-charlestonsc.org.

There she sat, barely 20, asking Coretta Scott King for permission to take the eldest child of the nation’s premier civil rights family on a backpacking trip. Through Africa. And not on a tourist’s journey, either.

Mrs. King said yes, a parental nod that launched a 30-year friendship between Suzan Johnson Cook and Yolanda King.

It was the early 1980s, and both women were young adults immersed in all that Martin Luther King Jr. advanced, eager for what the world held thanks to his movement. For eight weeks that summer, they traversed West Africa by foot, eating along roadsides and staying in local residents’ homes.

“You learn to rely on each other,” Cook recalled. They went on to travel far and wide together.

Their friendship knit Cook into the King family as she embarked on a career serving God as an ordained minister and, later, serving America’s first black president as ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.

Now 56, the Rev. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook will be in Charleston to speak today at the area’s largest celebration of King’s life and legacy. The annual event, at the historic Morris Street Baptist Church, draws more than 1,000 people including many religious and political leaders.

“I’m a Martin Luther King baby, and I’m really looking forward to coming back home,” said Cook, whose family hails from several Southern states.

Church at the core

Cook’s parents, active in the civil rights movement, raised her in the Bronx with a deep faith in Christ and a deep belief in King’s work. Both were rooted firmly in their church.

“The church was the center for all of this,” Cook said. “You don’t separate the faith from the movement.”

She was a first-grader when her parents and neighbors went to the March on Washington. She and her grandmother watched it on TV.

“There was an excitement not felt since,” she said.

Two years later, on Human Rights Day, she heard Dr. King speak. She shook Mrs. King’s hand. Once she got home, she wrote them a thank you note. Mrs. King wrote back.

“It changed the trajectory of my life,” Cook said.

She began reading all that she could about King and the civil rights movement.

“Martin Luther King was the man who changed our lives,” she said. “He had the call of God to preach but was chosen to be a sacrificial lamb and servant leader. Because of that, we are blessed.”

King had been assassinated by the time Cook met his daughter, Yolanda, and the fateful backpacking trip ensued.

“I got to know the family up close and personal,” Cook said. “Even though he was gone, the work was not.”

In 2003, after Cook’s own mother died, Mrs. King told her, “You are my other daughter,” Cook recalled.

When Mrs. King died in 2006, Cook consoled Yolanda while helping the family coordinate with people all over the world who wanted to honor the King family matriarch.

As Cook offered the funeral’s opening prayer, she saw people from all sectors of their lives: the King family, three living American presidents and their wives, legislators, faith leaders, you name it.

“It was not just their mother but also our civil rights icon,” Cook said. “It was a combination of containing my own pain, helping the family with their pain and at the same time being a leader.”

Growth of a leader

While dealing with her personal losses, Cook’s professional life soared.

She was New York City police chaplain for 21 years, the only woman to hold the post, and served as pastor of several New York churches. She worked as a dean and professor of communications at Harvard University, a theology professor at New York Theological Seminary, a television producer and author of many books.

In 1993, Cook was named a policy adviser to President Clinton and later to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros on issues including violence, homelessness and community empowerment. She served with Clinton’s Initiative on Race, the only faith adviser.

Cook stood on the White House lawn when Clinton honored Nelson Mandela after that leader’s historic election.

Later, she witnessed America’s own historic election.

In 2009, Cook joined people of all ages and faiths and racial backgrounds amassed in brutal January temperatures to witness the inauguration of America’s first black president.

“This was the moment we had all been waiting for,” she recalled.

Later that year, Cook received a phone call from Hillary Clinton. Would she consider serving as President Obama’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom?

“It takes your breath away,” Cook recalled. “Just the thought of being considered was an honor.”

Elated and exhausted

Little could she know, her nomination process would involve two years of vetting and Senate wrangling.

Finally, in 2011 Cook became the first African-American and the first woman to hold the diplomatic post. Her terrain? The entire globe.

Among highlights was judging an oratory contest in Nigeria, watching children halfway around the world deliver King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Another time, she joined Pope Benedict at the Vatican, a black female Baptist minister from the Bronx sitting in the pope’s prayer chamber.

“You realize the majesty of the position,” Cook said.

And then there were fights for those who lack religious freedom such as pastors jailed in countries like Iran for their Christian faiths.

“There were moments of euphoric joy and exhilaration to moments of exhaustion,” Cook recalled.

She left government life in October after traveling to 28 countries in 29 months.

“I asked, ‘What’s best for this next step in my life?’” Cook said.

Now, she runs a speakers bureau and founded a global organization for female faith leaders. She’s also a distinguished visiting fellow at Catholic University of America.

With so many experiences, what will her message be to local residents gathered at Morris Street Baptist Church today?

‘We are the leaders’

Cook plans to encourage all people to take on leadership roles in pushing for civil rights and equal justice, regardless of their jobs or income or religious views.

“Leadership began in the church but now it comes from all different sectors,” Cook said. “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

After all, even as the country honors King, much work remains.

“It shouldn’t be all on one man,” Cook said. “Now it’s my challenge to the audience: Are you leading? And how are you leading?”

The Rev. Leonard Griffin, pastor of Morris Street Baptist and Cook’s friend, said it’s an important question to ask the crowd given lingering disparities in health care, education and poverty.

“It’s typically a diverse crowd, and that message should hit home,” he said.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.