Martin Luther King's Message Inspires A New Generation
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today, the nation remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped lead the fight for civil rights and equality that changed this country. Decades after his assassination, his message continues to inspire a new generation. This weekend, African American and Jewish high school students here in Washington, D.C. got together to talk about Dr. King's legacy. NPR's Allison Keyes joined them.
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ALLISON KEYES: People were smiling and tapping their feet at Temple Micah in northwest Washington during Friday's evening Shabbat.
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KEYES: They offered friendly greetings to the 2011 class of Operation Understanding D.C. sitting in the audience. The night's program included the reading of an excerpt from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream Speech," and two guest speakers who just completed OUDC's program, 18-year-old Emily Aronson is one of them.
Ms. EMILY ARONSON: I saw history come to life and traced the progression of my faith.
KEYES: She says the program, both taught her more about Judaism, and made the civil rights movement more personal to her. OUDC's program kicks off every year on the weekend prior to Dr. King's birthday. After a three-day retreat, participants spend six months learning about each others' history - and the similarity of the pain the black and Jewish communities have suffered and their work together during the civil rights movement.
The teens then travel to various cities from New York to Georgia and Alabama, ending in Memphis where Dr. King was assassinated. Aronson says King's message inspired them.
Ms. ARONSON: We kind of like followed him. And then seeing where he died, it was - I mean, that left like a really big, lasting impression. That was the last day of the journey for us.
KEYES: Zann Ballsun-Simms is 17 and told the temple what it was like to stand at the National Civil Rights Museum in the recreation of the room where Dr. King stayed, and see the piece of original concrete still stained with his blood.
Ms. ZANN BALLSUN-SIMMS: I must have stood there for a good 10 minutes. It was unbelievable to think that someone who did nothing but promote peace could be killed in such a violent way. It made me angry, sad, and confused all at once.
KEYES: But Ballsun-Simms says she also learned that African Americans weren't the only victims of lynching in the south. She cites the case of Leo Frank - a Jewish man lynched in 1915 Georgia for the killing of a 13-year-old white girl.
Ms. BALLSUN-SIMMS: I never heard of a white man being lynched before. But it further indicated to me the fact that Jews were considered as much outsiders as blacks.
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KEYES: Seventeen-year-old Curtis Tiger is one of the 24 students just starting the program, and says he's excited to have the chance to broaden his horizons with Jewish students and learn their outlook on society in America. He thinks Dr. King would be proud to see the groups come together.
Mr. CURTIS TIGER: We're following in his footsteps - he did the same thing as us, uh, we're doing the same thing as him - fighting for social justice - and basically what we're going to do, is kind of like take on where he left off.
Mr. DANIEL MILLER: Dr. King really backed, like, everything, like all the values and all the things we've been talking about and are going to be talking about for the rest of the year.
KEYES: Seventeen-year-old Daniel Miller, another new participant, says he's really interested in learning to run the prejudice reduction workshops that are part of this program.
Mr. MILLER: I'm hoping to, you know, become, like, more of a leader.
KEYES: Chaundra Christmas-Rouse is sixteen. She says she hopes Operation Understanding D.C. will help her learn new ways to tackle frank conversations between diverse communities without violence.
Ms. CHAUNDRA CHRISTMAS-ROUSE: What this program does is, you know, say it's okay to approach me and ask me a question that, you know, you just don't know what you don't know. And so, I don't know, I feel like this really gives you the tools to kind of handle those type of awkward situations.
KEYES: Christmas-Rouse says she and the other students will use the momentum of Dr. King's memory to motivate them through this year of study.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.
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