A 15-year-old white youth was in the minority when a group of District youths attended a forum in tribute to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. last week at the District Building.
Justin Slobig, a freshman at St. Anselm's Catholic School in Northwest, said he attended the forum because he wanted to find out more about black history. He said he used to read about it in school every February when he was enrolled in a District public school.
"We had to do reports on black figures for Black History Month," Slobig said. But since he has been enrolled in the private school "we don't study black history at all."
"It's really pathetic," Slobig said. "You can't talk about apartheid in South Africa when there is so much racism still in this country." He said he wanted to learn about black history from those who knew it firsthand.
Slobig was one of more than 60 members and friends of Mayor Barry's Youth Leadership Institute, a youth organization designed to provide leadership training to the District's outstanding youth, who attended the forum "The Student Movement: Bridging the Gap," sponsored by the alumni association's issues committee to hear former civil rights activists share their experiences in the movement and offer guidance in the continuation of the struggle.
Committee Chairman Norm Nixon told the young audience: "We're in danger of losing the meaning of this holiday, losing sight of the dream. We want to bring to you the history firsthand from the people who lived it, because the history books don't tell the whole story."
The youngsters were enthralled by panelists' stories of being beaten and jailed for protesting against segregation laws in the 1960s.
When panelist June Johnson, a member of the Youth Institute's Parent Association who grew up in Mississippi, talked about the time that her brother was beaten for neglecting to say "sir" to a white storeowner, and about being beaten and jailed for wearing shorts in downtown Mississippi when she was 14, the youngsters grew edgy.
"There's still segregation in the South," said 20-year-old Marc Wright, who is a premed sophomore at Georgetown University. "It's sad that our generation is so apolitical. Our being uninterested will make us a lost generation and send all those efforts for our freedom in vain."
Panelist Douglas E. Moore, King's classmate at the Boston University School of Theology who also served as a founding board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told the youths: "Unless you pick up the torch and carry on, we as a people are finished."
Raenell Haywood, 16, said she enjoys listening to adults talk about the past. She added, "I'm glad to be growing up now instead of then."
Nixon, 26, said he hoped the discussion would encourage young people to become more involved in their community. He said today's young people are "pushed to think it's enough to just go to school, get a good job and a family." But he cautioned, "We can't be satisfied with achieving the 'American Dream' . . . . We need to get in positions to help other people."
"My grandfather always tried to give me material things," council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) told the youngsters. "Our parents think that's what we want. I didn't want material things. I needed something more . . . I wanted to be treated like an American."
Wilson, who is former national deputy director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, challenged the youngsters to revamp their value systems. "You spend hours on hours in front of the mirror to look good. Spend a few hours reading . . . . This is the first generation that only wants to be equally as dumb as the next person . . . . Read. Know yourself. Know your history. Give yourself a solid foundation."
Other panelists included Alfred Jones, former member of the NAACP Youth Council and former member of the Congress on Racial Equality; and Lawrence Guyot, former member of SNCC, and chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Youth panelists included Harry Thomas Jr., president of the D.C. Young Democrats, and son of council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5); Donald Temple, president of Concerned Black Men and 21st Century PAC; and Jerlys Thompson, president of the Black Peoples Union at George Washington University.