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News Maryland

Students embrace King tenets on
nonviolence to resolve conflict

Eighth grader Danyelle Taylor has learned about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in school, but she got an up-close peek at King-era mementos Sunday — including a 1957 letter the civil rights leader wrote his literary agent and a program from the 1962 March on Washington.

Math teacher Rachel McGrain, as a reward from the Knowledge and Success Academy School in Baltimore, took Taylor and seventh-grader Tiary Johnson to visit to a special exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture,

The trip helped bring alive King's message.

"We should treat everyone equally, no matter what color," said Taylor, 13. "Even though there was segregation and everyone wanted Martin Luther King to stop, he didn't stop and kept fighting for our rights, so everyone could live in peace."

Over the last few days in Baltimore, children have been recounting King's lessons. As the nation marks the civil rights leader's birthday Monday, area students said they view those messages as relevant today as they were a half century ago, and some said they see the struggle for people to accept one another continuing.

Many of the younger visitors Sunday to the museum, which hosted a showing of the documentary, "MLK: the Assassination Tapes," said they were struck by the civil rights leader's traits of determination and courage in the face of challenges. And it's still a challenge, some said, for young people to accept one another for who they are rather than judge based on appearance.

Andre Brown III, 16, a student at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, said he believes King's message is getting lost in a world dominated by the media emphasis on appearance.

"He wanted to see people for what they are, not just what they look like," said Brown, who visited the Lewis Museum Sunday with a group of family and friends.

Brown's sister, Grace, 12, added that she believes King should be remembered for giving a voice to those who couldn't stand up for themselves. But, she said, too many in her generation believe "Martin Luther King did something cool, but it's not a big deal."

During a conflict resolution workshop Friday at St. Frances Academy's Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Development Winners Conference, eighth graders Myles Hutton and Ahmi Scott drew inspiration from King to show they have a firm grip on finding non-confrontational ways to solve problems.

Hutton advocates "being the bigger person" in a confrontation to avoid a scuffle, while St. James and John School classmate Scott would avoid conflict on the Internet by ignoring or blocking someone who posts something offensive.

The boys' exercise showed how the message of non-violence resonates in the lives of young people every day — even in the online world that didn't exist when King was alive.

"It's hard to walk away when someone is messing with you," said Hutton, "because even if there's no one else around, you feel like he's disrespected you, so you want to protect yourself."

Brian Boles, director of the St. Frances Academy's Camille and Bill Cosby Community Center, which housed Friday's conflict resolution workshop, said he hoped the event would help show students how they can apply lessons learned from King. Geared toward eighth graders, the event attended by more than 60 middle students also focused on such topics as financial literacy and college/career planning, and featured former University of Maryland and NBA player Walt Williams as speaker.

"We wanted the kids to get information in a lot of different areas that are vital to their development," Boles said. "We know Dr. King as advocate of non-violence and finding tactful, but effective, ways to make change."

Argin Hutchins, a Johns Hopkins University faculty associate and mental health counselor for the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, led conflict resolution workshops with discussions on what students should do when damaging rumors spread, when face-to-face confrontations arise or when social web postings leave one ready to lash out.

Conflict resolution, "occupies 80 percent of the issues we deal with regarding adolescents. They want peace, but they feel that they need conflict in order to get there," Hutchins said, noting that King's message still speaks to those issues.

"King focused on the collective spirit of all people — that we must live in peace. We are seekers of peace, this is who we are biologically, physically, emotionally. When peace is disrupted, you see behaviors that are not productive on a personal level or a social level," he said.

"He was trying to resolve the conflict of segregation and discrimination, and he used [conflict resolution] to fight off a huge problem," said Alayna Shadis, an eighth-grader at Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School. "And we're using conflict resolution for social media, which is still a big problem."

Students said there's no question how their generation regards King.

"He's a world shaker," said Constance Francois, a Baltimore Montessori eighth-grader. "He was the one who stood up. He was inspirational.

"If you think about it now, there are plenty of problems and issues that have to be faced in our generation," Francois said. "There's still discrimination against certain races and religions. I think it's good to look at all of our past world shakers to get ideas on how to change things that go on in our lifetime."

Cheyenne Clavin, 11, a sixth-grader at Franklin Middle School who visited the Lewis Museum Sunday with her father and younger sister, heard in King's famous speeches that "he tried to end racism," and said that struggle is still important because "people are still racist today, and it's not fair."

It's important that students see King in the light of today's world, and Friday's conference offered them opportunities to learn personal traits in line with King's message, said LaUanah King-Cassell, principal of St. James and John School.

"He was always an advocate for everyone being involved in the struggle, not just the adults, but youth as well," said King-Cassell. "Coming together today represents his life."

Hutton and Scott said an incident at school Thursday illustrated the messages they discussed on Friday. Scott said that a classmate, who is much smaller than him, hit him in the head with a golf ball. Scott was angry, but refrained from striking back.

"I said I was going to beat him up. But he was this little guy," Scott said. "I thought about it, and I just calmed down."

In doing so, Scott said, he later felt he had been the "bigger person."

Hutton agreed, "Literally."

Joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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