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.
Segregation and inequality used to be upheld by laws that have since been fought and changed, said Nigel D. Greaves, 34, another producer. Problems exist, but it can be more difficult for students to identify and understand them.
"There's no law to fight anymore. It's zoning or a Zip code," Greaves said. "It needs a deeper analysis."
That reflection was in evidence Monday at the Shining Star Freewill Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Highway in Prince George's County, where a group of deacons knelt in prayer.
"We don't have to go in back doors no more," Daniel Lockett, 64, said as other deacons bowed their heads or cried out in affirmation. "We don't have to worry about so many things. We can sleep at night, father."
The church's pastor, the Rev. James N. Flowers Jr., who is African American, remembers moving to Seat Pleasant in 1959 with his wife, who is white, and four children.
"When we moved in, the whites moved out," said Flowers, 74. "It was like breaking through a barrier."
The teens, who said they move in diverse circles of friends, had trouble grasping that forced segregation was so recent a barrier. The obstacles they had focused on during hours together traveling in vans were the violence and poverty in their own neighborhoods.
Those concerns didn't go away but broadened, starting in April with a visit to Memphis for the 40th anniversary of King's death. The students waited outside a CNN tent to interview Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
On Harlem's 125th Street, which was renamed for King, the students learned King had been stabbed there in 1958. After years of violence, the neighborhood has undergone an intense gentrification that replaced some mom-and-pop stops with chain stores and restaurants, such as Starbucks and Old Navy.
"Do you think that 125th directly reflects Martin Luther King's dream?" a student asked two street vendors.
"Of course not!" one said. "Not only is there no black businesses, there's no black communities."
In Newark, the students were stopped on King's namesake street by two men sipping St. Ives malt drinks. The men asked why they were there with cameras. The pair ended up giving the students a history of the neighborhood and what it was like during the 1967 riots.
In New Orleans, they could see the Superdome and the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.
In Little Rock, they ventured off the street named for King to see Central High School, which nine African American students desegregated in a tense drama in 1957.
In Northern California, the students followed MLK Way from a rough stretch of Oakland to pristine neighborhoods of Berkeley.
Gomez-Camarena was taken aback that even the signs labeling the street were different. Berkeley featured images of King on its numerous signs; those in Oakland were ordinary street signs. "Even the signs that are supposed to be promoting equality aren't equal."
But the issues are more complicated than what a street sign says. Indeed, the students have yet to finish their film.
Summing up their own city's challenges has proven toughest of all. And with most of the original student filmmakers now in college, the task has been passed on.
A group of Ballou High School students will finish the piece - adding their own history.