In a violent time, students examine peaceful ideals that fired King's dream


It was a birthday celebration tinged with despair.

There was heartfelt song, dance and poetry yesterday as students at Forest Park Senior High School honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But there was also wistful longing for the civil rights era that Dr. King represents -- a time of black unity and purpose, seemingly all but lost in the drug epidemic and black-on-black violence of today.

First Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X and now the annual King holiday have inspired students to take a fresh look at the civil rights movement, said Mary C. Radcliffe, social studies coordinator at Forest Park, a nearly all-black school in Northwest Baltimore.

"For the first time in about 15 years as a social studies teacher, Ihave seen students motivated to think about and analyze where we've been and where we're going. It's more than kids just wearing an X on their shirts," Mrs. Radcliffe said.

It clearly has been painful reflection.

After a schoolwide assembly to honor Dr. King, members of Mrs. Radcliffe's "Youth and the Law" class talked yesterday about the legacy of the black leader slain a quarter-century ago this year and that of Malcolm X.

"If Martin Luther King was here today, he would be totally disgusted with all the genocide going on,"said student Christina Francis.

"I think if the guys of my generation would live by Martin and Malcolm, they wouldn't be an endangered species," added Natesha Gregory.

The renewed interest in Malcolm X's rise from street hustler to avatar of black pride marks young blacks' need for a "knight in shining armor" untarnished by both white and black establishments, said Russell L. Adams, chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University in Washington.

"Malcolm was Everyman, in effect, of the poor," he said.

Forest Park student Herman Lavender said he admired Malcolm because he "came from the bottom, through poverty and drugs. He fought for what he believed in. . . . Since he came from the bottom to get blacks together, I wonder why people today can't do the same. After all, we have a better chance than he did."

At the same time as young blacks learn Malcolm's story, Dr. Adams said, "King is becoming more and more difficult to teach because of the deification of him."

Historians worry that by exalting Dr. King once a year on his national holiday, Americans may focus on the leader and lose sight of the movement that spawned his leadership.

But several of Mrs. Radcliffe's students said that another movement like that of the 1960s could produce great new leaders today.

"Everybody has some Malcolm and Martin in them," said Carla Henson. "They just need a little love and care from home and God."

Perhaps surprisingly, in a year suffused with symbols of the fiery Malcolm, Dr. King, the Baptist preacher and advocate of nonviolence, seems to have lost little luster.

The Forest Park youngsters know Dr. King, who would have been 64 today, only through textbooks, documentary films and the well-worn stories of older generations. But they say they still feel connected to him.

When Malcolm X recaptured young blacks' attention, "I began to wonder if students would need to make a choice between Malcolm and Martin," Mrs. Radcliffe said.

"Luckily, they figured out on their own that they didn't have to. It's not like, 'Am I a Raiders fan or a Redskins fan?' They realized they're on the same team," she said.

In an informal survey, a plurality of the 31 students in her class accorded Dr. King and Malcolm X equal importance. Nearly a dozen said Dr. King was a greater influence; about half a dozen said Malcolm X meant more to them.

"Both believed in something and died for it," Melvin Bagby said.

In a violent era, the Forest Park students revere Dr. King above all for his advocacy of nonviolence.

"He could have cracked some heads," Melvin Bagby said. "But I have more respect for him because he didn't stoop to others' level."

"He was all about peace and nonviolence among every color," said David Johnson. "I think Martin Luther King was sent by God because what he went through is sort of similar to what Jesus had gone through."

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