National News

‘I’m Glad That I’m Equal’: 6 Students on King’s Legacy

Posted April 2, 2018 6:48 p.m. EDT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Drive just a mile or so from the old Lorraine Motel — its sign glimmering in the spring sun, the nearby sidewalks offering quick strolls to a barbecue joint and a gelato shop — and arrive in this poor city’s poorest part.

Men stagger in the streets. There are blighted buildings and unkempt yards. The blue lights of police cars seem as common as stoplights. But Booker T. Washington High School can feel like a refuge, even as its students openly toggle through hope, horseplay and despair.

At this school, the first public high school for black Memphians and one that earned a commencement address from President Barack Obama in 2011, the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remains a daily and subtle pull for many students. Many of their parents were not alive when King marched and died in this area. Now, though, the children of this area are quick to recall when they first learned about King, when they visited the site of his death, when they heard his still-familiar cadence.

In separate interviews, six students reflected on how King’s work and legacy shape their own lives a half-century after his assassination at the Lorraine.

The interviews have been condensed and edited.

Chinika Ruffin, 14

She wants to be a gospel singer.

I was about 10 years old. I remember me and my grandma sitting in the living room, and it came on the news that it was Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. She started telling me more about him, and when I got to school the next day — because we’re always out of school on the day — they started asking us how our break was. I was so confused, and I was like, “Who was this man?” My teachers started telling me about him. Ever since then, I’ve been doing my research on him.

He was the person that stood up for everyone; he was everyone’s voice. I don’t think no one is outstanding like he was. Dr. King, he was a legend to me. That’s all that’s possible. When I think of his name, I think of a legend, a man that wanted our nation to be more, someone who wanted everyone to get along and be empowered by his speech and the things that he did.

He said, “The time is always right to do right,” and some people went by it and some people didn’t. I wish more people would follow behind his footsteps. People should get advice from the speeches that he made.

I’ve never been outside of Memphis. When Martin Luther King Day comes, I wonder what are they doing out there. Do they celebrate it, or do they go against him?

I can walk out of my house now without having to look around and be like, “Am I supposed to say this? Am I supposed to say that?” like back when my grandma was around. I’m comfortable in my own skin, and others are, too.

Tommy Applewhite, 13

He plans to become a pediatrician.

I know he was an intelligent man who had a big dream.

We had a black history program, and I had to dress up and be Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember that day; I don’t remember his speech, exactly, but I was someone from black history, and it made me feel like I can do the same thing he did.

I always think about him and Rosa Parks and Booker T. Washington. I think I know Dr. King a little bit, but I want to get to know him better. I heard his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Mountaintop” speech, but I feel like I need to get in more, see how he felt, what made him want to encourage more people. He didn’t have to do it. What made him want to do it? What made him have that dream?

What I really worry most about is trying to be safe around here because any time someone has a fight, they have to pull out a weapon and try to use the weapon against the other person. He knew that violence was not the answer.

There are still people fighting with each other, but there are people trying to bring them together instead of breaking them apart. If people just get along and stop the violence and stop going at each other and they just actually listen to Dr. King’s speeches, they could get along better.

We’re better. There are different races at this school. You’ve got different races at more schools. If he was here, he’d be proud to see that his dream was accomplished. He’d be proud of his dream.

Cedricka Harris, 11

She loves math and wants to attend the University of Memphis.

He would still give his “I Have a Dream” speech because he really wanted people to have equal rights and treat people the way they wanted to be treated.

People should listen to it more often because sometimes people might forget about it and still do things that Dr. King wouldn’t want them doing. My favorite part is that he said one day, his four children would rise and not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of the character.

I think about him a lot, almost every day. I’ve got white friends and black friends that I play with a lot. I think he would be amazed right now at how far we have come since 1963 to 2018. I think he would be proud. People at this school treat people the way they want to be treated.

Gabino Valderrama, 12

His favorite subject is science.

If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here because my dad, he’s African-American, and my mom is white.

Now you see equal rights, but you used to not see that. Now you see people all sitting wherever they want on the bus. I think he would be proud. It started off as nothing, and it became a big project turning out to be successful.

If he hadn’t died, I think his policy would have mattered, but things wouldn’t be as better as they are today. I think it influenced the white people to what he was saying, and they started standing up for African-Americans. A white person killed him, so that probably just broke someone’s heart. He was an honorable person.

It’s not as messed up as it was. I think there’s some work to do: There are some whites and some African-Americans that still don’t get along.

It could be done better, if you just meet up and talk it out and not having a dangerous fight about it. Get back together. If there was someone brave enough like how Dr. Martin Luther King was, they could get together. Don’t look for the differences. Try to talk it out.

Nicko Brown, 13

He plays basketball and is a fan of the Golden State Warriors.

When I hear his name, it’s like an inspiration to me because he is a black man. He is a black individual, and he opened doors to the point where we can get along. We don’t have to be separated from whites. We can get along with them. We can work with them. We can be in the same places.

Look at this school, for instance. We have all kinds of races in here. We get along with each other: on the playgrounds, on the courts, on the football fields, everywhere, we get along with each other.

If he was still alive, there would probably be less problems. Some people still wouldn’t like him; just like today, some people still don’t like him, and they don’t follow by his lifestyle and his greatness. Some people would love him.

What worries me most is what’s going to happen, like if I’m going to be good at one moment and then be hurt or dead the next moment because people, they just don’t listen. They don’t follow by the rules. Dr. King could have fixed it. He probably would have done a march, done a testimony, went to Congress or went to court.

I would tell Dr. King that his dream was a success. His dream, to me, was one of the best dreams you could ever have.

Gabriella Valderrama, 13

One of her favorite movies is “Twilight.”

He stood up for his people, and I think that when he stood up for his people, he stood up for me because I’m different. I’m thankful for it.

Whenever I’m afraid to do something, I think about his “I Have a Dream” speech, and I tell myself I can do it. When I tried out for cheerleading, I was scared at first. And then I thought of him — and then I finished the whole year of cheerleading.

I would tell him I accomplished my dreams, and I would tell him I’m so grateful. He was a leader. I’m a leader. I think that you’re a leader, you be yourself.

I’m glad that I’m equal.