Bankole: How Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to this generation
“Whatever career you may choose for yourself — doctor, lawyer, teacher — let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in an April 18, 1959 address to students who were marching for integrated schools in Washington, D.C.
Then came this line: “It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.”
King understood that young people are the future. As such their voices must not be silenced and they themselves should not limit their ability to create meaningful change because of their age. That’s also because he was one of them.
Think about it. He entered Morehouse College at 15. He proceeded to seminary at 19 and received his Ph.D. at 25. He was determined to be an agent of change, and one whose efforts to destroy the shackles of racism and bigotry left an indelible mark on the world.
That is one of the most distinguishing qualities about his life, which is hardly discussed in our remembrance of him. Often, he is looked upon as an elder when we refer to his crusade for civil rights. But he actually died before 40.
Last Friday, I sat down with five students from Communication and Media Arts High School, which is part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, to discuss King through their own lens. All 11th-grade students — Joshua Thomas, Robert Rivers, Imari Carl, Na’Kiva Lane and Caleb Bailey between the ages of 16 and 17 — have one thing in common: they admire King as a youth leader.
“I admire his determination and fighting spirit. He was revolutionary and fought for basic rights,” Thomas said. “A lot of people disagreed with him and tried to shut him down, but he never gave up and only fought harder.” He said the lesson for young people to draw from King’s life is “to fight for what is yours and stand up in the face of oppression. You are not too young to do anything. If you want something done, you need to start right away no matter how old you are.”
“He never allowed others to stop him even if they were using violence against him.”
Carl said King’s approach to the challenges of his era has impacted the way she’s dealt with issues.
“He showed us that nonviolence can actually make a difference. It can produce outcomes in certain situations,” Carl said. “And I have learnt that sometimes you have to talk through things and it doesn’t always have to end up in a fist fight.”
For Lane, she admires King’s courage.
“I like the fact that he was very courageous and didn’t let anything stop him,” Lane said. “That tells me that no matter how old you are, if you have a mindset for change you can make it happen. You shouldn’t listen to those who want to judge you to make things happen based on your age. Age is nothing but a number, and it is important for us to start creating change young.”
And Bailey likes how King often appeared relaxed often in the face of great difficulties.
“I love the fact that he was persistent and nonchalant in moments that were dangerous,” Bailey said. “I think what Dr. King taught us is to never let someone stop you from doing what you need to do, and he also taught us that having a vision is crucial to our future.”
He added, “In my high school life so far there are times when I wanted to give up in school. But I thought to myself that King went through situations and he never gave up.”
One thing about young people as King observed in his speech is that they “will not take ‘no’ for an answer, will not take double talk for an answer,” which is why change begins with them and we must recognize that always.
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