This April will mark the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. As area residents and organizers prepare for tomorrow’s holiday honoring the civil rights leader, many show an eagerness to share his work with an entire generation that has grown up after his death.
“What’s interesting about Dr. King’s legacy is that a lot of people right now have the assumption that because we have a black president, the dream has been realized,” said Rueben Brock of Washington, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at West Virginia University. “If you look a little deeper you realize that’s not necessarily the case. There’s still a lot of work that’s left to be done.”
Brock, a W.E.B. DuBois fellow studying psychology and counseling, wrote a nonfiction, semiautobiographical book entitled “A Young Man’s Wisdom.” He said there’s plenty of work to do almost a half century after King’s death.
“My research is on African-American students’ self-efficacy,” Brock said. “It’s closely related to the stuff Martin Luther King Jr. played a part in. He helped to desegregate schools, and that’s a big part of the work that I do today.”
Brock said while the Civil Rights Act paved the way for black Americans to sit in classes with white students across the country, there are still many forces keeping students of different backgrounds apart. Whether it’s socioeconomic status, self-segregation, geographical boundaries or any number of other factors, the American education system today is far from a post-racial utopia.
Bob Griffin, president of the Washington chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, said that 45 years after the death of the civil rights leader, King’s message is more relevant than ever.
“I try to have my three sons reflect on the fact that even though we have an African-American president and see people of color being successful, it wasn’t always that way,” Griffin said. “It took a lot of perseverance, hard work, faith and sacrifice by their ancestors in order that we could achieve that.”
At the LeMoyne Multicultural Community Center’s Homework and More afterschool program, Director Joyce Ellis works to bring students together. Ellis said one of the educational workshop’s goals was to get students of all ethnicities to learn together in one place.
“We break down barriers,” Ellis said. “There are a lot of obstacles kids have to overcome as youths. I’m a strong advocate for young people taking advantage of their ability to learn and be educated.”
Inside a classroom in the LeMoyne Center’s building on Forrest Avenue in Washington, Ellis taught children the importance of King’s work. Many of the students in the room couldn’t imagine living in a world where they were prohibited from sitting next to each other.
“We are constantly referring back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Ellis said. “He paved the way. Before King, we couldn’t even be connected in the same room with someone of a different color.”
Ellis said she uses the MLK Day as a chance to teach the children at the LeMoyne Center the importance of learning.
“In the past, people were dying to be educated,” Ellis said. “I tell them, ‘You can have it for free, so you better take full advantage.’”
Although he is most known for his work on desegregation, King worked on a wide variety of social justice programs, from providing jobs to the underprivileged to ending war and poverty.
“A lot of young people know about the March on Washington and that’s it,” said Phyllis Waller, second vice president of the NAACP Washington chapter. “That’s making him into a wee, little person. He was about much more than that.”
Jan. 13 marked the 45th anniversary of a march that King organized against the Vietnam War, which he called “cruel and senseless.” Drawing comparisons between King’s activism and the ills plaguing today’s world are almost unavoidable.
“When asked to reflect on what Dr. King’s views might be on the conflicts that we are currently engaged in around the world, like Afghanistan, I think it is important to note that I think he would want our country to focus more on issues here at home like reducing and putting an end to poverty, rebuilding infrastructure and investing in schools as opposed to fighting wars abroad,” Griffin said.
Many of King’s messages resonate loudly today. In Waller’s living room in Washington, a sign carried by her parents during a “March for Jobs” displays his work on creating employment security for all Americans.
This past fall, Waller and organizers from the NAACP took action to fight Pennsylvania’s House Bill 934, commonly known as the voter ID law.
“I, like other people, felt the voter ID bill was instituted in order to be able to stop people from voting,” Waller said. “It would mainly affect minorities, senior citizens and poor people with disabilities.
“It’s a privilege to vote. It’s a right to vote. As time goes on, different organizations try to change the wording but, beneath it all, this is the same struggle that has been fought for generations,” Waller said. “The same injustice Dr. King fought against.”