“I would say: Martin, please help me. I would not like to be treated this way. You should not have gotten disrespected. You fought over rights, and I am happy you saved our lives. You stood up for yourself. You took all the pain inside and threw it back, not letting go of any of your thoughts inside. You got treated badly and shouldn’t have. You fought for our equal rights and never gave up. God knew that segregation was wrong, so did you. That’s when you stopped segregation and racism.”
She opens her eyes and looks around, as if looking for assurance that what she had recited was right. Her classmates clap for her in their summer camp, housed in Brighter Day Ministries, a church just off Martin Luther King Avenue SE. As part of the camp curriculum, their teacher has taped to the bulletin board definitions of racism, prejudice, segregation. The words are stark reminders of lessons the children need to know about the history of civil rights.
Dontrelle Parker, 11, raises his hand. He recites a list of facts from memory. If he were taking a quiz, he would get all of the answers right.
“He went on a civil rights movement so he could get equal rights for blacks and other races. And he, no matter what happened, he still stuck to doing it. He got arrested for doing it. And John F. Kennedy, a young politician, called to get him bailed out. And he went to Washington, D.C., to do a ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. And four years later, he got assassinated at a hotel in Memphis.”
In his workbook, Dontrelle writes: “I would ask Martin Luther King Jr. if he was still living would he still be marching for civil rights and segregation and racism, but most of all I would ask Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if he would mentor me and show me right from wrong.”
The students recite facts from King’s life, but the man himself seems elusive, almost ancient. Even if King’s image appears to be everywhere. Always in the background, slightly beyond reach.
King’s face is on the mural up the street, on the side of the convenience store — slightly distorted but recognizable. His portrait appears beside a portrait of President Obama on the mural on the convenience store.
King’s name is on the school up the street.
King’s name is on the avenue on which the students walk to school.
Still, last month, before their teachers showed them a film on King’s life, they knew little. “They just thought it was like a story, or something like that,” says Marsha Gilreath, director of the Summer Academic Camp Explosion, where students ages 2 through 16 are enrolled. “They had heard the speech before, but they had not come in contact with any part of that history. They knew his name, but they didn’t know anything about him. During Black History Month, they might go get books and read it, but the connection was not there.