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Teachers Get Today's Teens to Reflect on the Message of Martin Luther King


More than three decades after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, his message of peace and his dreams of racial equality still resonate in societies throughout the world --and in American schools.

At Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, Dr. King's life and legacy are part of classroom lessons all year long. The racially diverse school stresses positive relationships and mutual respect for all people as critical ingredients for academic success. Teacher Mary Dubill says the values of non-violence and social equality fit easily into the curriculum. "He drew heavily on Gandhi's message of peaceful resistance," she says. "That gives a global element to it. And, as our population is representative of the wider world, I think we can probably draw on his message even more."

In the classroom where Mary Dubill teaches English as a Second Language, her young Latino students have no trouble relating to that message. "He made peace so that white people would understand that he wants peace in the world…he doesn't want to fight with nobody, he wants everybody to love each other," says one student. Another youngster refers to the civil rights leader as "a nice man that did a good thing for black people and white people…so now they don't have to be fighting against each other anymore -- just become like normal people." Another student comments that Martin Luther King's message of inclusiveness made him feel better about his Hispanic heritage. "He [Dr. King] says, 'You are as good as anyone'…that makes me feel like I'm important," the boy says. "I don't care about what other people think about me. I don't care if they say, 'You don't know English.' I know Spanish is my first language and I know that I'm important."

Teacher Mary Dubill not that, while most of her students are familiar with the words of the famous civil rights leader, they do not know much about the segregated society he lived in. Using documentary films and newspaper accounts of the time, she tells her class that Martin Luther King's peaceful protests in the 1960s were often met with violence by police -- a fact she says they have difficulty relating to. "A lot of the goals he worked for, they take that for granted, happily," she says. "When they do see something from the historical period, it's a shock to them. It's a very different world and it's hard for them to believe it."

Some 300 kilometers north of Ms. Dubill's classroom, the predominantly African-American Pleasantville Middle School in New Jersey is commemorating Martin Luther King Day with special programs, classes and speakers. Eighth grade teacher Latifa Potter says it is difficult for some of her students to understand the notion of peaceful resistance when their own surroundings frequently lend themselves to violent resolutions. "I think it's hard sometimes because Martin Luther King dealt with non-violence," says Ms. Potter. "And a lot of times in an urban area it's very different for them growing up. Many of the kids that I have use the violent way in order to express themselves, fighting. So it's hard for them sometimes, but I would say it's 50-50 - some say they agree with non-violence and some say they don't."

While her school organizes special events to recognize the civil rights leader on his birthday, Latifa Potter says she would like to see Pleasantville follow Thomas Jefferson's approach, and communicate Martin Luther King's message to the students during the rest of the academic year, as well.

[Photograph and interviews by VOA's Jantae Hamilton]