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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the decline in what younger generations know about him

The older generation is excited about honoring the man they say made desegregated schools and restaurants possible by demanding civil rights. Children may know Martin Luther King, Jr. was an important religious and political figure, but become tongue-tied when asked for details.

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with students as he and his wife Michelle and daughter Malia participate during a day of service to honor Martin Luther King, Jr, at the Browne Education Campus school in Washington, Monday, Jan. 16.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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At the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Crenshaw in Los Angeles, the Michael Brown family is settling into folding camp chairs early for a good view of the annual MLK parade. This is the man that changed their lives forever “by setting the path,” as Mr. Brown puts it, rattling off King’s accomplishments from boycotts to marches to speeches.

Does his 14-year-old son, Marcus know as much about King?

“No.” says his mother, Akisha, bluntly. “Parents and schools have dropped the ball in teaching the life and achievement of Dr. King.” Prodded for a comment while bundling up with his one-year-old sister, Akilah, Marcus blurts out shyly: “I know he said, ‘I have a dream.’”

All along the parade route, interviews show the same thing. The older generation is infused and excited about honoring the man they say made it possible for blacks and whites to attend the same schools and restaurants by standing up and demanding civil rights. Teens and younger children know King was important as a religious and political figure, but become tongue-tied when asked for details.

This disturbs Jasmyne Cannick, an African American community activist, political commentator, and nationally syndicated columnist who lives within walking distance of the parade route.

“I’m troubled because I know how much King sacrificed to get the country to tackle the civil rights issue, and my generation is complacent and forgetful of this because they’ve had it all handed to them,” she says. Asked to grade America on how well it’s done in passing on the knowledge and passion of King, she fires off, bluntly: “D-minus or F.” 

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