The work sheet that Marvoureen Scott gave her second-graders was white with purple ink and smelled of the mimeograph machine. At the top was a box full of words: "Washington, segregation, nonviolent, dream, black, equality, white, violence."
At the bottom was a fill-in-the-blanks test: "In 1963, the famous March on
took place, where Dr. King delivered his famous 'I have a
When all the blanks were full, from King's birth in Atlanta to his murder in Memphis, Scott asked her pupils if they had any questions. Hands thrust up all around the room.
"How many kids did he have?"
"Did they die too?"
"Why did they have that fight with the water hose?"
It was the last question that gave Scott pause.
The boy who wanted to know about Sheriff Bull Connor's Birmingham sat at his desk with a stick-figure portrait in his hands. During show-and-tell he explained that this was King, "telling all the people it is time to go on a big walk around." He was the master of 2 plus 2 and an apprentice at I before E, but neither of those is a truth that anyone has died for.
How best to convey King's truth is a question that confronts the custodians of his legacy each day. His message is spread in social studies classes; his face appears on coffee mugs and playing cards. In Washington the landscape is studded with places that bear his name, places like the Martin Luther King Jr. Christian School on Alabama Avenue SE, where Marvoureen Scott was taking an extra minute to formulate her answer. They are community centers, libraries, parks, grocery stores. And each testifies to the endurance and the fragility of a dream deferred.
Byong Choi is washing his burgundy Cutlass at the curb in front of the Martin Luther King Grocery and Carryout, the store his family owns at 2420 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. It is a single-digit day, a bit chilly to be cavorting with wash rag and bucket, but Choi moves fast, rinsing off soapsuds just before they freeze.
The Chois, a Korean family, bought the place two years ago. They sell tomato soup and malt liquor from behind a bulletproof shield that encloses perhaps a third of their narrow store.
Byong doesn't feel particularly comfortable with English and directs questions to his wife Theresa, a soft-spoken woman in her midtwenties who has been in this country almost a decade. She does not know a great deal about King, she says. The store was named by the previous owner.
"But I think he was a great man," she says. "I read about him in a magazine last week. But I don't have too much time. I have to work here and work at the other store at the Capital Plaza Mall. And take care of the children. On Sundays sometimes I read, but I have to go to church."
The Chois live in suburban Maryland. Like many recent immigrants who bought inner-city shops, they received a sometimes hostile reception.
"We used to have lots of fightings in here always," Theresa says. "Every day we used to have them. It was kind of scary. I had fear-ish feelings. Now we haven't had them in six months. They know us and we know them.
"The people have warm hearts, but the problem is drugs and liquor," she says.
On this icy noon the store is doing a brisk business. A poorly dressed woman who needs a favor is waiting to speak to Byong. A man on his lunch hour is buying $16 worth of lottery tickets, and a large woman in white sweat pants is singing softly about her six-pack of Colt '45.
John Robinson lives in the basement of the house at 2411 S. Kenmore St. in Arlington that also goes by the name of the Martin Luther King Community Center. The name evokes visions of basketball courts, meeting rooms and young staff members with whistles dangling from the lanyards around their necks.
In reality there is only Robinson, 53, pounding on an old typewriter that sits atop a cluttered desk in an office he shares with the small stockpiles of food and clothing he's gathered for the needy. He is a slightly chubby man with a melancholy expression, long thin fingers and graying wiry hair that he brushes straight back. For 23 years he has been on call 24 hours a day, helping members of the city's black community through times of personal crisis.
"I came up under segregation right here in Arlington," he says. "But my mother, she instilled in us, 'Don't hate anybody, but don't let anybody mess you over.'
"When I was a boy, I remember sometimes in the summer it would be 100 degrees and we'd be in Peoples Drug Store. We'd have to wait at one counter while the lady sold the same thing to white people standing at the other counter, and I said, 'When I get old enough, we'll see what I'm going to do about this.' "
What he has done is become a renaissance man of last resort -- feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners as well as the sick. It is no accident that his life lends itself to language that echoes the New Testament.
"I go to Lomax AME Zion Church," he says. "Without church I don't think I could survive around this crazy place. I get disgusted with them, but I don't give up on them because God didn't give up on us."
Like a cop or a prosecutor, Robinson is accustomed to seeing people at their worst. "We work a lot with kids in trouble," he says. "It takes a lot of our time because so many of our young people are going to prison. I could spend all my time in criminal justice.
"Summer is really tense. I see kids out there acting simple and fighting because there is nothing for them to do. It's not like when we were coming up. We had the family. Now the family is shot. The children are staying up until 3 a.m. If I stayed out till 3 a.m. I wouldn't be here today."
Robinson keeps the center open through a grant from the United Black Fund of Washington. His office is filled with homemade posters proclaiming the successes of area college students, the importance of registering to vote, the availability of free income tax preparation services. The community has few needs that he, in his scattershot way, does not address.
"You can't plan anything," he says. "You make your plan and then somebody goes to jail. Somebody dies. Somebody doesn't have food, or they come in here fighting, the husband and the wife are fighting."
In his spare time Robinson writes, edits and delivers The Green Valley News, a newsletter that comes out whenever he can afford to have it photocopied. In the paper he is part cheerleader, applauding the career advances of area residents, and part Jeremiah, warning in blunt language of the dangers of drugs, teen pregnancy and AIDS.
It seems sometimes that his reception is no better than Jeremiah's. In the well-to-do he finds complacency. "Living in the suburbs, I think blacks are more content," he says. "They feel they have been to the mountaintop. But they haven't been to the mountaintop. Everyone is hollering about drugs and violence in Southeast, but it is here too."
In the poor he finds willful alienation. "I am disgusted with the mass of blacks who aren't preparing themselves for anything," he says. "Dr. King would cry to see we're not going to school to get the right courses to put them in a job or in college."
Robinson does much of his work at night, after the county's social service agencies close down. "Sometimes I get a call in the middle of the night," he says. "Somebody died -- will I type the obituary, bring it to the newspaper? Then I find out there's no insurance for the burial -- can I raise the money?"
Raising the money is an unending task. Robinson says he receives no salary for running the center. His dated wardrobe is almost entirely donated.
"I haven't been shopping in 20, no, I guess it was about 15 years," he says. "I came into this world with nothing and I'm going to die with nothing. But sometimes I'd like a little money now and then to go to Penney's and buy some of the modern clothes."
Play Area One is for lawn games only, it says so right on the sign. Martin Luther King Park on Jackson Road in Silver Spring is an aggressively orderly place. Beside each of the four play fields is a sign that tells you what the field is for, in case the goals, goalposts and base paths don't do the trick.
The fields and grounds are covered with days-old snow that has been thoroughly trampled by kids making their way home from the nearby schools. In front of the swim center, children are piling out of station wagons, gym bags slung over their shoulders. In the main pool, 30 preteen members of the Montgomery Swim Club are doing the butterfly stroke. One of them is black. Parents watch from behind glass in deep chairs, a floor above. There aren't any photos of King on display and no mention of today's holiday on the bulletin board.
Roger Wilkins, the writer, lawyer and professor at George Mason University, speaking last Thursday in the "Blessings of Liberty" series at Martin Luther King Memorial Library at 9th and G streets NW:
"I am going to buy my Mercedes and forget it. I'm going to send my kids to Sidwell Friends and forget it. I'm going to get my security system, so those people can't rob me, and then forget it.
"If we do that, we don't deserve to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. We don't deserve to sing sad songs about we shall overcome. Martin is dead, but we are alive.
"We blacks who have succeeded in this life -- we cannot turn our backs on the black poor ... The only asset the black poor have today is our talent, our fellow-feeling ... and our fidelity to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr."
Marvoureen Scott is ready. Speaking in the cadences of her pupil's work sheet, she says:
"The sheriff didn't want people demonstrating for what they believed in. But the marchers had unity, so they would not just run away. So he turned on the hoses."
"Weren't there some people drowned by the hoses?" a girl asks. Her show-and-tell drawing pictures King and his wife Coretta at their wedding. "I love you, baby," is written in the background.
"No," Scott says. "To drown you need to be under the water."
Most of the 150 children who attend King Christian School were born into the middle class. Principal Carolyn Paxton estimates that three-quarters of their parents work in the federal bureaucracy. They pay $65 a week to have their children supervised from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. That includes two meals and a snack each day.
"A lot of callers are looking for day care," Paxton says, "but we offer much more than that." The school accepts pupils from 2 1/2 years through the second grade. Even the youngest follow a strict curriculum and are assigned homework.
Paxton is in her second year as principal, but she has been teaching in Southeast since 1979. "I got a lot of response that doing it wasn't safe. But these aren't bad children or dangerous children. I know of a lot of incidents that do happen, but we try to give the children a feeling of not being afraid in this neighborhood.
"I found that working in Southeast doesn't present any problem for me. Parents want the same thing for their children."
Last week the school was decorated with drawings of King, magazine clippings about his work. Even the prekindergarten kids colored in pretraced portraits. "What we stress is teaching them that he did have a dream -- his desire for freedom and equality among nationalities," Paxton says.
Still it is an elusive business, communicating not only the substance of King's dream but the fervor with which he dreamed it. The second grade is a bit early to get into the complexities of the civil rights movement, the ways that King and the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee differed over strategy, or the way J. Edgar Hoover (who also has a building named after him) tried to drive King to suicide.
Those are matters of history. When Marvoureen Scott's pupils tell you the meaning of King's dream, it is clear that what they are studying is faith.
"So everybody could have peace."
"So everybody could have freedom."
"That blacks and whites would like each other."