Taking to roads to find Martin Luther King's legacy

A group of D.C.high school students traveled across the country to document life along eight streets named after the slain civil rights leader. Here, a look at one such Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the students' backyard: Southeast Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 17, 2011; 10:16 PM

It started as a series of high school road trips, chances to venture out of the District with the loose intention of picking apart a well-worn Chris Rock joke about the violence on streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Eight teenagers from five D.C. high schools crisscrossed the country with two mentors and video cameras, visiting more than a dozen "MLK streets." Their driving tours in 2008 coincided with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, putting the students between a history they barely knew and history in the making.

The documentary they produced is still in rough cut, though it was aired at Anacostia Library as a run-up to the King holiday. But the images the teens now carry with them, they said, have reshaped how they think about themselves and their world.

These students have never known a January without Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday that was celebrated for the 25th time Monday. But until they traveled the country and the roads bearing King's name, they did not connect with the day in as personal a fashion as did their elders who recalled King on Monday in church services, sidewalk conversations and a host of volunteer projects that included President Obama and his family helping paint a mural of fruit in the cafeteria of the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast Washington.

Hundreds of towns and cities have dedicated a street to King. That is a memorial more simple than the monument being constructed in Washington, but the act creates a daily reminder of that community's civil rights battles - and a starting point for another generation on a path to learning about its own history.

"When you're younger, you just know the name, but you never think about it fully," said Jason Allen, 18, one of the filmmakers. He grew up with his grandparents a few blocks from Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast Washington.

"People don't feel like a name [on a street sign] is good enough anymore. They're proud of the name, but they aren't proud of the conditions" beneath the sign, said Marco Gomez-Camarena, 18, who also lives in Southeast.

When these eight students first came together, after an application and interview process, their two leaders asked what they knew about King, besides his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Crickets" is how Charneice Fox, 33, a writer and producer with the production company Straight, No Chaser, described the response. Silence.

Her company joined a District-based nonviolence project called One Common Unity to cobble together grants to fund the film.

Most of the teens knew the joke comedian Chris Rock told in 1996: "You know what's so sad, man? . . . Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what's Martin Luther King? A street. And I don't give a [care] where you live in America, if you're on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there's some violence going down."

To get deeper, the group, which met after school and during summer break, read all of King's speeches and his book "Why We Can't Wait." They discussed what King's teachings mean in today's context, especially as college and high school students take up such causes as gay rights and environmentalism.

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