Will Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy survive the generation gap?

Published 6:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

Martin Luther King Jr. Day means different things to different generations.

Older generations remember when King helped lead the civil rights movement.

Some remember a time when schools and even water fountains were segregated.

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Many participated in the movement themselves.

For them, the question is how to pass on that knowledge and King’s ideals to the younger generation.

Juanita Jones, a member of the board of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture, helps organize an annual luncheon focused on King.

At the luncheon, to be held Monday, young people will perform, sing, dance and make speeches.

“We have a lot of different churches and individuals we ask to sponsor the youth,” Jones said.

“Ordinarily, these are separate, but we get everybody coming together that day.

“We are trying to show our kids that’s what King wanted — equality for all people of all nationalities and colors and ethnic groups to come together.”

Caleb Johnson, an 11th-grader at Natchez High School, said King’s messages got through to him.

“I keep his legacy in the back of my mind at all times,” Johnson said.

“He showed me it’s not just about hurting somebody. You can stand up for what you believe in without violence.”

Catherine Lewis, a 12th-grader, said she thought previous generations were more directly influenced by the civil rights movement.

‘The (older generation) experienced racial segregation firsthand,” Lewis said.

“We don’t know what it was like to be forced to drink from a separate water fountain or anything like that.”

Jones was one of those with firsthand experience. In junior high and high school, she was actively involved in the civil rights movement.

And although she doesn’t think about it all the time, she remembers how things were back then, when segregation and discrimination were commonplace.

“I was part of the struggle,” Jones said.

“I marched and attended the meetings. I remember one day, I was holding a sign and picketing when a man came out of a store, snatched my sign and tore it up. That was a wake-up call to me that this was serious — it wasn’t playtime.”

Jones said she and others work hard to convey to younger generations King’s ideals and the struggles people went through to help achieve them.

“I appreciate things now because I lived during that time,” she said.

“Our kids now, we’re trying to teach them that not all things have always been like they are.”

Some members of a younger generation realize that. At Natchez High School, students in Frances Doss’ African-American Literature class are exposed to King’s legacy in their studies.

But beyond the books, the lessons may not be so real.

“I don’t think (my generation) is as personally touched by Martin Luther King’s legacy because so many people take our privileges for granted now,” Lakeisha Smith, a 12th-grader, said.

“We worry about so many other unimportant things.”

Flora Terrell, one of the NAPAC founders, also remembers the civil rights movement.

“I see (King) as a man with great strength,” Terrell said. “I see him as a person who made a difference.”

Terrell, who also helps organize the luncheon, said she saw children today who wanted to learn about King and his ideas.

“For them, I think, it’s ‘I have a dream,’” she said, referring to one of King’s most famous speeches.

“I heard a little boy recite some of his speech today. He was invigorated. I’d never seen him so excited.

“They focus on what they’re going to be — they’re inspired by a man like King. It gives them a vision, a sense of hope.”

Through the NAPAC museum, Terrell said, she and others help to foster that sense of hope. Some young people volunteer at the museum year-round

Raymond Riley, a pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Vidalia, said he thinks a lot of children understand the message of King but adults “have a ways to go.”

“A lot of the older generation are what cause the racial tensions today,” Riley said.

“As pastor of a church, I have several white children that come to my Bible studies and they (white and black children) play together, but the minute adults step in, it causes problems. You still have whites and blacks that think (they) shouldn’t be together.”

Orma Jean James, 64, is a retired clerk for the City of Vidalia.

James said the only way to pass on the legacy of King is to live it.

“You have to live it day by day,” James said.

James said King’s message was one of racial equality and harmony.

“We have to love one another, no matter what creed, color or race,” James said.