News Column

King's Message Is Difficult for Some Young People to Understand

January 17, 2011

Dahleen Glanton

King

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated two decades before Tyris Jones was born.

And in that time, which for 21-year-old Jones is a lifetime, America evolved from a nation of segregated classrooms and racially designated drinking fountains to a country more like what King dreamed it could be.

Many young people cannot imagine life any other way, which can make it difficult for them to find meaning in the civil rights movement that took place almost a half-century ago.

"The main thing is trying to figure out what Dr. King's message means today," said Jones, a junior political science major at Northwestern University. "It's different than the segregated buses and the burned-down churches. For me, the question is: How do I make what Dr. King stood for a part of my life?"

On Monday, Jones will read one of King's speeches during a candlelight vigil at Northwestern to commemorate what would have been the slain civil rights leader's 82nd birthday. The words were written in the 1960s, but Jones said they are relevant today in a world wracked with youth violence, diminishing educational opportunities and unemployment.

Keeping King's message of service and advocacy relevant to young people becomes more of a challenge as each year goes by, according to historians. Civil rights groups have not kept up with technology as young people moved toward the Internet, texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to receive and exchange information.

Though old videos of King's popular "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 can be found on YouTube, it is more difficult to find Internet visuals of historical events that defined the civil rights movement, such as the lunch-counter demonstrations, the Birmingham church burnings and the "Bloody Sunday" march in 1965 in Selma, Ala., where hundreds of people were beaten.

The election of President Barack Obama, historians said, also has contributed to a feeling among some young people that America is now a post-racial society.

"As the conversations has become much more about governance and the administration, it has made entities such as civil rights organizations from the 1960s seem much more purely historical," said David Garrow, a senior fellow at the University of Cambridge in England and a Pulitzer Prize-winning King historian. "Civil rights figures such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr. are sort of at the edge of the radar screen, but they seem like very tertiary figures nowadays."

Tavis Smiley, whose books about the African American experience has attracted a following of young adults, said young people understand the essence of injustice as much now as they did in the 1960s. No one speaks more powerfully to those issues that King, he said.

"Whether we're talking about presenting Dr. King in the classroom, the lecture hall, the church or the Internet, the medium is not so much important as the message," Smiley said. "These young people today are more aware than they have ever been, and they are more aware because of the social networks and the Internet."

There is no shortage of outlets to present King's message, but the issues must be talked about in terms of today's issues, such as sexism, racism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, poverty and young graduates who are unable to find a job, he said.

"All of these things, King addressed in his lifetime," Smiley said.

Yufei Tian, an 18-year-old Chinese immigrant who attends Northwestern, said King's work sends a powerful message to young people of all backgrounds. She moved to the U.S. with her parents at age 6 and learned of King while attending public schools in Ohio.

"When you think about leaders such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, they conquered the world through might," said Tian, a freshman biology major who volunteered for a King public service event on Saturday. "Dr. King inspired people through love and tolerance, and that's just wow."

African Americans have not done a good job of passing civil rights stories through generations, according to Fannie Rushing, a history professor at Benedictine University and a former volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led student protests in the 1960s. That is partly due to the fact that so many families don't have the historical perspective, she said.

"When the parents are only 15 to 20 years older than the children, that means the parents were born after the civil rights movement and the mother's experience is not vastly different than the child's," Rushing said. "The ramifications of teenage pregnancy are very wide. There's a tremendous intergenerational dialogue that has broken down. And that is a major problem in a large part of the black community."

With the exception of the 2008 presidential election, young adults have had the lowest voter turnout record of any group. The mission is to help them make a connection between the past and the present, said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

"Part of the problem with the King legacy is there are those who see it as remembering what was accomplished in the past," said Carson. "You don't suddenly wake up one day and say now we have social justice.

"Every generation is going to need something different. But there will always be issues of social justice."



Source: (c) 2011, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.


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