The dozens of young people gathered Monday at the Lincoln Memorial hadn't been born yet when Martin Luther King Jr. was alive. Two of them, Jennie Moline, a senior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, and Erika Strickland, a senior at Banneker High School in Washington, were only a year old when a national holiday was declared 16 years ago to honor the slain civil rights leader.
But if any group is to be credited with keeping King's dream alive and giving real meaning to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is youngsters like these. They get it. They feel it. They know that there's still work to be done.
You could see this in cities across the country over the weekend as tens of thousands of teenagers took to heart the theme for this year's celebration: "Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not a Day Off!"
In Philadelphia, about 18,000 volunteers, many of them teenagers, fanned out across the city to renovate schools, clean neighborhoods and read to children.
Even in Concord, N.H., where MLK Day was celebrated for the first time, more than 500 volunteers--many of them elementary and secondary school students--spent the day distributing food to the needy and helping senior citizens.
In the Washington area, teenagers helped to renovate parts of St. Elizabeths Hospital. They were from Operation Understanding D.C., an organization that seeks to rebuild the historic and once effective political relationship between African Americans and Jews through the next generation of leaders from both groups.
Young people in the Washington area also helped renovate a shelter for the homeless run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence at Second and D streets NW. They picked up trash along routes named for King in the District and Prince George's County.
They sang. They danced. They marched.
And when they spoke, their words conveyed wisdom and insight far beyond their years.
"There's a cold wind today that carries with it the voices of the past," Moline, 17, told the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. "If you listen, you can hear the words of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. If you listen, you can hear the voice of Marian Anderson, singing at the Lincoln Memorial because she could not sing at Constitution Hall. If you listen, you can hear the chants of anti-war activists calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. And if you listen very closely, you can even hear the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, proclaiming, 'I have a dream today!' "
A lot of adults seem to have grown deaf to all of that. For a while, I was starting to wonder if the King holiday eventually would become just another three-day weekend marked by "I Have a Dream" mattress sales.
Odd how easily we forget what went into getting King's birthday recognized. What a nasty fight it was, marked by accusations that King was a communist and complaints that another day off in winter would be used for ski trips and end up costing the nation too much in lost labor.
But because of the way so many young people have responded, the nation now stands to profit, economically and spiritually.
Martin Luther King's "belief in God would not let him accept the status quo," Moline told the crowd. "Following his example means looking within our own tradition to find inspiration to make the world a better place."
"Our parents were there, they lived through the '60s and '70s, so they are obligated to teach us this history," said Strickland. "We need to hear the stories. We need to be educated about our history, because if we don't know how we got here, we won't know where we're going."
It was November 1983 when the King holiday bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan--maybe the one reason he should have an airport named after him.
But by 1989 several states still were refusing to honor King's birthday with a holiday. And Virginia had combined King Day with its celebration for Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
Most of that has changed now. This year, nearly every state honored King, and Virginia set in motion plans to stop mixing King Day with celebrations for those icons of the Confederacy.
Even the Vatican is considering honoring King as one of the 20th century's Christian martyrs.
For some of us, Stevie Wonder's seminal "Happy Birthday" recording, released in 1980 to help boost the King holiday legislation, has become just another oldie but goodie. But to the children, ironically, the fight is new. And the issues are as real for them now as they were for us back then.
"The mission is not over," Moline said.
"People in this country are still suffering," Strickland added, "and we have to do more all year round to help them."
Bless their hearts.