The America of 50 years ago is all but unfathomable to the youth of today.
Most high school students can’t imagine a world of poll taxes, state laws criminalizing interracial marriage, schools segregated by race. A world in which something called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was necessary.
All these have made their obligatory appearance on textbook pages, but to fully internalize their reality is an exercise in absurdity.
The realities of a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racism remain.
These are the lessons Papillion-La Vista high schoolers are taking from today, a day that marks exactly the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the day when Martin Luther King Jr. birthed his dream and compelled America to move forward in living out the true meaning of its creed, when he tolled out the freedom he and others so desperately desired across this land.
“I couldn’t imagine a place where everyone is separated and couldn’t talk to each other,” said Lexxus Hawkins, a senior at Papillion-La Vista High School. “I think today, we consider personality, not race. My friends are who they are, regardless of their color. I don’t see myself as black or white, but as a person. I don’t think that was the case 50 years ago. I think that part of the dream has been fulfilled.”
In the generation moving through the halls of high schools today, that seems to be the prevailing mindset. Something is taking root in this generation that was sown 50 years ago in King’s dream and even before, and it has a lot to do with education and a more complete celebration of the nation’s diversity.
Black, white and brown — the Millennials don’t bat an eye when they encounter a rainbow coalition in the classroom.
But at the same time, some students noted a sense of entitlement which can creep into this harmonious picture and a feeling that, while taking racial diversity for granted, there’s suddenly been some permissiveness toward racial taboos. Others also recognized that social ills resulting from racial animosity or even policy have created an imbalance in many sectors of life, most importantly in housing and education.
“I wouldn’t say it’s completely perfect,” said Richard Elmore, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South High School. “There are still problems. I know there are places in Chicago where an African-American can be stopped by the police for just about any reason. When that’s happening, there’s still an opportunity for us to do better.”
Said Hawkins: “Ignorance still exists and I think it was because we were separated for so long and there’s a lack of understanding. People think I talk funny because of my race, but it’s just because of where I’m from. They think my hair is weird. What I say is, we have to get to know each other better. We definitely have a ways to go on that.”
And that’s something the generation coming of age in the next few years takes as a serious charge.
“There are still people that have the same, old point of view that used to be around,” Hannah Fulton, a junior at Papillion-La Vista said. “Just yesterday, there was a fight (about race) here and it got a lot of people talking, ‘How can we change it? How do we make it better?’”
Having come a long ways in 50 years, there’s still more ground to cover and questions to answer that don’t always have easy answers.
Students today look at what King and other leaders of the civil rights movement were able to achieve on Aug. 28, 1963, and are fascinated by it. Those flickering black-and-white images in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial are an immovable testament to what has happened in race relations in this country and what could still happen in their lifetimes.
Sara Matras, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South, said the groundwork laid by King and the generations since he outlined his dream has put her and her peers in a unique historical moment, themselves.
“I think we’re in a special place,” Matras said. “We’ve been raised to fight for anything we believe in. We’ve learned that we have a voice, and Martin Luther King Jr. has served as an example to us our entire lives.”
Elmore agreed: “We don’t even really have to think about it. Martin Luther King and all African-American activists stood up, not just for African-Americans, but for all races, for all diversity.”
King’s exhortatory style in the speech also gives it an authenticity the students agreed they had not seen from leaders in their day. As a Baptist preacher by occupation, King peppered the speech with Biblical and literary allusions, but also brought the speech down to ground level in ways that could directly relate to his audience.
“You can kind of hear his voice trembling in the first couple of minutes,” said Noah Thornton, a Papillion-La Vista South junior. “But as he builds, and that passion he has in what he’s saying keeps going, that’s what made a difference. That’s what made people listen and made that speech great.”
Fulton said her generation is seeing the speech cited more and more as marginalized groups like immigrants and homosexuals push for their inalienable rights, too.
“It’s cool because while the speech was relating to one thing in the beginning, it’s now affecting more people than it was intended to,” Fulton said. “It’s a speech that can be used by anyone fighting for their rights.”
Even 50 years hence, there’s a strong sense King wanted that speech to wend its way into the hearts of all who heard it and will continue to hear it.
For those 300,000 who were there, they knew they had witnessed something, in every sense of the word: monumental. When King was assassinated five years later, the urgency behind his words became prophecy — prophecy of a still hoped-after kind.
For those of us who see the speech only in those grainy, flickering images, the voice is strong, as is the feeling that the great orator, the great spokesman, the great man’s intensity is burning its way toward us, a half-century later.
“It’s a never-ending journey,” Hawkins said. “I feel like it’s never going to stop. Every generation will still have its groups where people are set in their opinions about race, but every generation then has the opportunity to turn the hearts of people in those groups and then we get more people who are accepting, and understanding. That’s what the dream means.”
In a later speech, one given on the eve of his assassination, King boldly intimated he might not get there with us. But in a way, he’s still here, said Thornton, and we can still keep striving for the dream.
“Dr. King knew it wasn’t a problem with an immediate solution,” he said. “Time is a key factor in determining if we can live his speech, word for word. He was a spokesperson for the silent, the people who couldn’t have said what they wanted to say.”