For the children attending Sunday school at First Baptist Church in downtown Annapolis, Martin Luther King Jr. is largely a face on a wall.

Troy James, 12, knows about how King helped Rosa Parks when she refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white passenger. Raymond Pinckney, 10, knows that his parents have a tape of King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. And 10-year-old DeAndre Kyler knows that King "wanted to put blacks and whites together."

But the youngsters, nattily dressed in white shirts and black ties, hadn't been born when King began his nonviolent battle for civil rights in Alabama in 1955.

They weren't around when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. They weren't here when Congress voted to make King's birthday a national holiday in 1983. They weren't even born when that holiday was first celebrated, in 1986.

For these children, King has become a historical figure, alongside the likes of Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. His memory, his struggle, is bound to textbooks, portraits and grainy black-and-white newsreels.

In this day and age, there is a growing fissure between those who can remember King when he lived and when he died, and those who can't.

Carl O. Snowden, chairman of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Dinner committee and a special assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), believes that the nature of the struggle for civil rights has changed but that King still plays a role in it.

The 66,000 African Americans in Anne Arundel County have won a string of symbolic and political victories in recent years: the election of three black aldermen to the Annapolis City Council; the dedication of a memorial to "Roots" author Alex Haley; the pardoning of a black man hanged for murder in 1919 though his guilt was in doubt.

However, for these steps forward, Snowden said, there have been steps back.

There are no black-owned banks or hotels in the county, and African American men have been accused of firebombing a black mother's house in Baltimore. And there were the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington regions last fall, a crime spree that surprised many when it was revealed that two suspects were black.

The steps back, said Snowden, are a far cry from King's speeches, which preached nonviolence as the path to gaining civil rights and equality.

"Something has gone terribly wrong, and I believe we've lost our moral compass," Snowden said. "I think what's important is that youth rediscover the message of King. King's message is as true today as it was 40 years ago."

In an effort to bridge the divide, Snowden set aside tables for young people -- waiving the $40 fee -- at this year's 15th annual dinner, which was held last night at the BWI Airport Marriott. The theme for the event was "Our Youth Is Our Future -- The Struggle Continues."

The dinner's honorees were recognized for being pillars of the community: House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel); retiring Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's); Joyce Black, the founder and publisher of a local newspaper; and others who through their actions have kept King's message alive.

But in a sign of the torch being passed to a new generation, this year's scheduled keynote speaker was Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, a 20-year-old student at Northwestern University who earned fame after speaking in 1995 at the Million Man March in Washington.

At the dinner, the old and young were able to take stock of where African Americans in Anne Arundel have been and where they are today.

Philip L. Brown, a 93-year-old black historian, photographer and teacher who has lived in Annapolis all his life, was around even before King, who would be 74 today if he were alive.

When Brown was born, the black community in Annapolis, then as now, was about a third of the city's population. Most blacks Annapolitans lived in what was called the Fourth Ward, a close-knit, thriving neighborhood expanding out from Clay Street downtown that had its own churches, schools and businesses and even a theater.

Though most residents were content, the cozy community's relations with the city's whites were distant and colored by the the threat of violence. The last lynching in Annapolis of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman happened only three years before Brown was born. In 1909, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law denying blacks the right to vote. A black alderman was expelled from the City Council and reinstated only after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state law in 1915.

"I wasn't aware very much at that time of just how much injustice we were subjected to," Brown said. "We did what we were expected to do."

Life went on; Brown followed a teaching career, becoming the vice principal of Bates High School. Then came King, whose protests against segregation in Alabama and marches to Washington became national news.

"Every time I knew he was going to be on [television], I watched him," Brown said. "In a way, we were in jail with him -- not physically, but in spirit."

Brown stuck to his schoolwork, but other Annapolis blacks were moved to action, traveling by the busload to join King in Washington. The city's religious leaders fired up their congregations, driving them to picket restaurants and businesses in the city that didn't serve blacks.

The outcome of King's crusade was not a certain thing to those who lived through it. "I had my doubts sometimes as to just what he would be able to achieve in making the white race realize that we were also first-class citizens," Brown said.

The tide finally turned, and blacks won the freedoms they had been denied for decades. Then, just as things were looking up, King was assassinated as he was standing on the balcony of a motel room in Memphis. The killing sparked race riots all over the country, but cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis.

"I was angry. It was a senseless death," said the Rev. Louis Boston, who was serving in the Army in Vietnam at the time. "I just wondered, why would people hate so much?"

It wasn't the last time that Boston, who now works at First Baptist Church, would deal with hate. In Fort Lee, Va., he heard two whites celebrating King's death.

"If it wasn't for my religion, if it wasn't for my faith in God, I probably would have got into a fight with them," Boston said. "Righteousness will prevail. This is what Dr. King was preaching."

King was gone, but already a new generation of blacks that stood to inherit the gains of the civil rights struggle was rising up.

Rhonda Pindell Charles, 48, was attending Parole Elementary while the drama unfolded around her; she barely remembers King. "It didn't mean as much to me as it would to someone older," she confessed.

But this year, she is receiving an award at a breakfast devoted to King's memory for her struggle to keep her old alma mater open. When the school was threatened with closure in the 1990s, Charles organized a group to fight the move and raised $3 million for the school's renovation. Now known as Walter S. Mills-Parole Elementary, the school remains open today.

"Mainly what I think Martin Luther King did was empower people," she said.

Charles gives credit for her tendency to fight for what she believes to her parents, community activists who listened to King's speeches and set a good example for her.

"I'm just doing what I was taught," Charles said.

Carl O. Snowden hopes that today's young people can rediscover the message of Martin Luther King Jr. that they see only in books and on video.African Americans were in jail with Martin Luther King Jr. in spirit, recalls 93-year-old Philip L. Brown, a lifelong Annapolis resident.A maple tree and a plaque honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the Maryland State House. The proximity of Annapolis to Washington made it easy for many city residents to participate in King's protest rallies.First Baptist Church in Annapolis was the site of meetings in 1973 to make plans to demand that a day be set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It would be 10 years before those plans here and in many other places would bear fruit.