“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.
“Nobody told them they couldn’t go somewhere because they were black. Nobody hit them. There were no dogs put on them.”
She wondered how the children could understand the concept of segregation. The children live in mostly black neighborhoods and attend mostly black schools. Many of the schools used to be white. But that was before forced integration followed by white flight.
“This community right here is predominately black,” Gilreath says. “From this part of the avenue all the way down to that Big Chair,” a historic landmark, “is predominately black. They don’t interact with any white people unless they go up to Northwest or Maryland. Other than that, they don’t see. The only difference is their teachers are white.”
The children didn’t understand segregation. “They didn’t realize it happened,” says Gilreath, who decided to incorporate a lesson on King’s life to celebrate the unveiling of the memorial. The lesson on King “was like a reality check for them. It was a disconnect. They couldn’t believe it happened not that long ago — the protest marches, the violence, not being able to go somewhere to sit down and eat because a person was black. Being sprayed with water. Dogs put on them.”
The images in the film on King’s life were inherently disturbing.
Many of the teachers “were telling them about stories of what had happened in our families — our mothers, fathers and grandparents. How when my sister moved to an all-white neighborhood,” in the late 1950s, “they burned her house down,” Gilreath said.
But Gilreath, 68, spoke of King’s courage. The students listened to their lessons and colored in pictures of King. They tied together workbooks and wrote letters describing what they would say to King if they could talk to him. “I would ask Martin Luther King Jr. Do you have a dream about people liking black people and black people liking white people and white people liking black people?” wrote Brittany Parson, 10, who will be entering the fourth grade. She filled in a coloring-book picture of King, careful to stay inside the lines.
Across the room, Daeshawn Smith raised his hand. Daeshawn said some people he knows would not care about King’s legacy. “Some people know about him. Some people don’t know,” he said. “Some kids standing outside and always getting in trouble, they are probably going to say, ‘I don’t care about Martin Luther King.’ They probably are going to say, ‘He never did anything for me.’ But he did everything for them. He helped us to be friends with white people and other races.”
Jasmine Carter, 13, a seventh-grader who lives in a complex off Martin Luther King Avenue, remembers learning about King when she was in the second grade. “I went with my cousin to the Lincoln Memorial. They had rose petals there. It made me feel sad. I couldn’t believe one person could make a change.”
Jasmine swings her long black braids. She twists the bracelet on her arm. She remembers reading a storybook about King when he was a child. “He had a white friend. They used to play together. But the white boy’s father told him he couldn’t play with Martin because he was black. Martin Luther King asked him why they weren’t friends anymore, but the boy just walked away.”
Jasmine said there is only one white kid in her middle school. “He’s a boy. But in our school, we don’t do racism. Everybody is treated the same.”
MORE: On Parenting: MLK books for kids of all ages