Martin Luther King's Message Inspires A New Generation

As the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a group of high school students in the nation's capital is following in his footsteps. Operation Understanding DC brings together African American and Jewish teens for a year-long leadership development program in which the two groups learn about each other's history and culture.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

ALLISON KEYES: People were smiling and tapping their feet at Temple Micah in northwest Washington during Friday's evening Shabbat.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

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.

(Soundbite of singing)

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.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.