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Martin Luther King Jr. Through a 1997 Lens

Teens and educators talk about his legacy

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"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."

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