On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the builders of the memorial dedicated to the civil rights icon on the National Mall gave young people a stage to reflect on his life and legacy.
The Memorial Foundation held a ceremony complete with spoken word and song from youths from Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest before a candlelight vigil at the memorial.
“With the march two weeks ago and the shooting in Parkland, I think it’s time for young people to take the mantle of leadership,” said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president/CEO of the Memorial Foundation.
Johnson said he was inspired to include young people in the reflection on King’s life by the recent March for Our Lives movement, in which tens of thousands of student activists stormed D.C. to fight for gun control following a mass shooting a high school in Parkland, Florida.
“In Montgomery, it was the older folks like Rosa Parks who led the [civil rights] movement, but in Montgomery, as King wrote a letter from prison, young people led and helped transform the movement,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing for us people with the gray here to get up and talk, but these young people were talking about the future, their future.”
The young people on the program took time to honor King’s legacy, but also reminded the crowd of roughly 100 people that his work for justice is not done.
“Dr. King, I am from Minnesota Avenue, Southeast D.C., apartment 302, 20019,” Jalynn Thomas, 17, of Duke Ellington said during the recital of a poem over the vocals of the school’s Sophisticated Ladies choir. “People say when I state my address it sounds like I’m saying my prison number, but I might as well practice since one in every three African Americans can expect to be arrested at some point in their lifetime, and in my neighborhood, just make that two out of three.”
Jalynn said her life experiences and those of the people around her influenced her poem about trying to accomplish her dreams in a neighborhood affected by mass incarceration and poverty.
Other young artists echoed her sentiments.
“I am disappointed in America, and there can be no great disappointment where there is no great love,” three young poets of the R Street Collective recited in unison. “I am disappointed with our failure to wield positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.”
Silas Newby, a 17-year-old Seattle native, said the marginalization of ethnic minorities remains an issue today.
“It’s important for youth to be aware of injustices,” Silas said. “We need some sort of new movement that furthers or moves to establish equality regardless of race.”
Will Searcy, 23, a program manager for inclusion and opportunity at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said he believes his generation’s role in moving racial equality along rests in fighting for legislative and economic progress.
“My generation has come of age where we’ve had to juxtapose the election of the nation’s first Black president with Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and I could keep going on, but there are too many to name,” Searcy said.
He said many of the victims of state violence experienced failures of the state before their fatal encounters in the form of poor education, inadequate housing and lack of access to proper health care services.
“King believed that full equality could be realized not only through political power, but also through economic autonomy and opportunity,” Searcy said.