Martin Luther King Jr. Through a 1997 Lens
Teens and educators talk about his legacy
"When we think about Martin Luther King," says ninth-grader Tyrome Thomas. "We think, 'Here was a man fighting for things everyone needed at the time, but if it was now, he wouldn't stop there. He'd be fighting for better schools, safer neighborhoods, more opportunity.'"
The views of Tyrome, a student at the predominantly African-American Burke High school in Boston's Dorchester area, reflect the attitude of many young blacks. They honor the late civil rights leader, whose birthday will be observed on Jan. 20. As the only national holiday honoring a black person, it means more to them, they say, than, for example, President's Day.
But, "we worry about more pressing things now," Tyrome says.
In a chorus of concerns, young African-Americans list: drugs, gangs, economic hardship, and other aspects of shattered communities and home lives - problems that can seem unrelated to the King legacy.
"I'm scared some times walking home late at night," Tyrome says. "And I worry about how I'm going to pay for college. I have to keep my marks up so that I can say, well I got A's and B's through high school."
For other students, "there's no need to plan for college at all, or longer term, like having children, because so many friends have been murdered," says Cynthia Web, Burke's director of activities.
In the face of such challenges, the civil rights problems faced by Dr. King are "almost unimaginable" to most young African-Americans today, says Burke headmaster Steven Leonard.
"When most young people hear King's name," he says, "what comes to mind is a man of peace, a great orator, a model for how black people should be represented. But although today's kids may know about the issues that he fought against - racism and bigotry - it's history for them. They would express shock and amazement about what people endured prior to the era of King."
For historian Eric Jackson, of the African-American studies department at Ohio's University of Cincinnati, "It boils down to this: They know his name. They know some of his accomplishments and the 'I Have a Dream' speech and his philosophy of nonviolent direct action. But aside from that, the knowledge base is not there. They do respect him, however."
Tyrome puts it more bluntly. "When people think about Dr. King," he says, "it's always what they hear he did, but some kids then go on to think, 'He's dead and he can't help us now.'"
The Rev. Jewelnel Davis, chaplain of Columbia University in New York, finds that young people's attitude toward King's role is often a matter of what words of his are cited.
"For a lot of these folks, 'I have a dream,' even as a metaphor, no longer works for them," she concedes.
But, she adds, in working with a group of minority students recently, she cited a speech by King - "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" - and discovered "that so many students came up to me to say that it spoke directly to what they believed their situation to be."
It's a matter, in short, of how King's legacy is presented and what aspects of his thinking are cited.
"The stuff that usually gets pulled out," Davis says, "often talks about the nonviolent struggle with racism, but 'remaining awake through a revolution' suggests an activism that is exciting to these kids."
Leilah Rose, an 11th-grader at Burke, says, "Civil rights is not a big problem to me. That's pretty much dealt with. The big issues today for people like me are money, safety, stability at home and school - and keeping the right frame of mind."
Her daily troubles lie far from what she perceives as King's theater of struggle. "Getting the money I need is a big problem," she says.
"There's a tour of 12 black colleges around the country coming up, with interviews. It costs $450 and I only have $150 saved. And I have problems at home," she says.
King's contribution "is a little far removed from today's young people," says Barbara Andrews, curator of the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was assassinated April 4, 1968.
"Today's kids quite frankly grew up with all the benefits, and the rights he fought for these kids say they deserve just for being here. The struggle today is for things like money, to go to college for instance. But it never crosses their minds that they couldn't go because they are black," she says.