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Teens reflect on changes since the March on Washington

ElectionsBarack ObamaMartin Luther King Jr.

Much has changed for the last three generations of 17-year-old Charles Evans' family. His grandfather participated in the March on Washington, but he still dared not dream that a black man would become president, Evans said. When Evans' father later joked that he wanted to be the first African-American president, his grandfather dismissed the idea.

The election of Barack Obama has convinced Evans that for his generation, anything is now possible.

"It was beyond what anyone in the civil rights movement could have envisioned," he said Wednesday.

Fifty years to the day after his grandfather made the trip to Washington, Evans was one of a small group of students at Randallstown High School gathered to hear a re-enactment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech and reflect on their futures, just as other students in schools in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties discussed the anniversary in social studies classes. One city school, KIPP, took students to the march Wednesday.

Despite the recent harsh political rhetoric after court decisions on the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and voting rights, these Randallstown students said they remain optimistic about the trajectory the country has taken since the march.

Just hours before Obama stood before the Lincoln Memorial to say "this nation has changed too much" not to honor the work of the civil rights leaders of the intervening decades, the students at Randallstown noted some of those changes in their own families and communities.

For some students, interracial marriage, a difficult step 50 years ago, has changed the fabric of their families. Taylor Cobb's family includes Koreans, whites and African-Americans. Her cousins, she said, look very different than she does, but they can be together in public without thinking about it.

"This is not something we have to hide because of our color," she said. "As time has moved on we have moved away from racial profiling."

And Ellen Milandu, 17, said she notices when her young niece plays on the playground she seems not to notice whether her friends are different races, a change she has seen since her own childhood. "I feel like there's been a whole lot of change," she said.

Yet, Milandu said she does believe that African-Americans feel as though others underestimate what they are capable of, which is why so much seemed to change with the election of Obama. "It was a monumental moment in the black community," she said.

The discussion at Randallstown came after Stephon Ferguson, a King speech re-enactor from North Carolina, gave a portion of the famous "I Have a Dream" oratory at their school. While he remained in character as King, Ferguson responded to questions from the students, who asked how he felt about violence between black and whites, what he believed it would take to have the dream fulfilled and what gave him the courage to chart his course in the 1960s and what should be done by students today.

The students acknowledged much needs to be done and said they believe their most important task is to take advantage of the education before them.

"I believe the best thing we can do is educate ourselves," said Milandu. "Many people take it for granted."

She said her father immigrated to the United States, so she is aware that children from some foreign countries are longing for what she and her friends have — a free public education, a free ride to school and perhaps a free lunch if they need it.

Too many of their classmates don't take their education seriously enough. "I don't think we take advantage of our opportunities," said Myia Smith, 17.

Like Obama, Smith said there is much that still needs to be done to fulfill the dream.

"I think we have a long way to go. We still have racial profiling today. ... I don't think that dream will be fulfilled soon," Smith said.

Obama said it will be the generation of young students who can be counted on to continue the march.

"There's a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation," Obama said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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