By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer
To many Greater Cincinnati youths, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is more than a figure in grainy black-and-white TV images or a picture on the wall of their grandparents' den.
The slain civil rights leader's pursuit of his dream, they say, has given them a chance for equal access to education, neighborhoods and public accommodations.
"Without him we wouldn't have the freedom to go to stores or ride buses without being discriminated against," says Victoria Green, a sixth-grader at W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Over-the-Rhine. "We also wouldn't be able to have the freedom to get an education or be able to speak freely or live where we want.
"I think his message is still very important to this day," she adds. "Because of him we all have freedom, rights and we're all equal."
Tyler Nelson, a sixth-grader at W.E.B. DuBois, raises his hand to answer questions about Dr. Martin Luther King.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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For those who marched on Washington with Dr. King 40 years ago, there is no question that his message of a nonviolent resistance for civil rights remains relevant.
But as the Tristate and the nation prepare to commemorate Dr. King today in parades and ceremonies, the question is: How relevant is Dr. King's message to our youth?
About two dozen teens and young adults, interviewed across Greater Cincinnati last week, say Dr. King's message of nonviolent resistance is more relevant than ever - particularly as the nation stands poised for war and controversy has been renewed over the future of affirmative action programs in college admissions.
They say Dr. King's principle of overcoming your enemies with love may be the only solution to the racial problems that surfaced in Cincinnati during the April 2001 riots.
"It's very relevant because racism and discrimination still exist," says Natasha Cash, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Cincinnati. "It may not exist like it did back when he was alive, but it's still out there."
Tristate youths describe Dr. King as an eloquent and powerful spokesman for the civil rights movement. They say his name is synonymous with justice, equality, nonviolence, leadership and social responsibility.
"(Dr. King) never shunned or put down other races. He promoted togetherness, and we've strayed away from that somewhat as a city," says Rashida Manuel, a 19-year-old African-American Studies major at UC. "We are not as close as we should be."
But Ms. Manuel and others interviewed also believe the connection between Dr. King and today's youth is getting weaker.
Ms. Manuel attributes that to young people learning only "surface information" about the civil rights legend: "Everybody knows who he is, but not everybody knows about him and everything he went through."
Lauren Dickerson, a 17-year-old senior at Walnut Hills High School, says the only time most kids learn about Dr. King is on his birthday and during Black History Month in February - the shortest month of the year. Even then students only get a sprinkling of that history, she says.
"Just as we learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we should learn about our great black leaders as well," she says. "Kids don't know as much as they should about Martin Luther King. I think it should fall on parents and teachers to make sure that we learn these things."
"It's American history. If you are going to teach it, teach all of it."
Tyler Nelson, 11, of Mount Auburn, has been learning about Dr. King in his sixth-grade gifted class at DuBois Academy and will make a class presentation on the civil rights leader Tuesday. From all he's learned, Tyler thinks Dr. King's message is relevant today.
"If it wasn't for him, we really wouldn't have a lot of opportunities for learning, getting on buses and going in certain bathrooms," Tyler says. "He gave us a lot of opportunities. We can live our lives freely."
Ms. Cash says she feels that there is a different connection between youth and their elders when it comes to Dr. King, mainly because they grew up during different times.
"Most people my age didn't experience racism and discrimination like they did," she says. "We weren't around for the sit-ins. We didn't get sprayed with water hoses or attacked by police dogs.
"We can empathize but we can't connect with him in the same way they (our elders) do because it didn't happen to us."
Ms. Cash agrees that a lack of knowledge promotes a lack of understanding and even apathy when it comes to Dr. King's legacy.
"I think there are some people that understand the meaning and significance and I think there are other people who view the holiday as a day off work, a time to chill or an extra sleep-in day, which is sad," Ms. Cash says. "I try to use it as a day to reflect and count my blessings."
Tiffani Winston, a 17-year-old junior at Purcell Marian High School in East Walnut Hills, says she thinks about Dr. King and his impact on her life daily.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be able to go to Purcell," she says of the diverse co-ed Catholic high school. "Making sure that I remember him is like a constant thank you for all he did for me."
Like Dr. King, Ms. Manuel says she has a dream, too. Her dream is to go into television and film production so that she can produce more positive images of African-Americans in the media.
She says Dr. King's legacy pushes her and she tries to urge her peers never to forget their history as well.
"A lot of people say we need to move on from the past, but my mom always taught me that if you forget the past then there is a risk of things happening again," Ms. Manuel says. "If we continue not to be taught and not to know about thing that have happened in black history, then there is a risk of all of those things happening again."
Enquirer reporter Jennifer Mrozowski contributed.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY
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