Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. unleashed a powerful and poetic torrent upon the nation – a passionate plea for racial equality and economic justice for African Americans. We played King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a group of teenagers at William Smith High School in Aurora. Does the speech still resonate with young people today?
Four teenagers, 14 and 15 year olds – black, Latino and white - huddle around a lap top watching a grainy black and white video. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. is starting to tell the crowd that the gathering will go down in history as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Watching them watch the 16 minute speech, they don’t show emotion over King’s soaring rhetoric. But the content yes. Justin Morales recognizes the speech as pivotal.
“I believe that it major point in American history for both races and even more races that weren’t directly involved,” Morales said.
“It made me think, like, what if the speech never happened? Would we be living in different conditions? Maybe we wouldn’t be at this point where we are right now.”
And where we are right now, these student say, is a much better place. They don’t see institutionalized segregation like there was in 1963.
“I definitely think that African-American, that race in America today, is free but there is discrimination but it’s not as present as it used to be,” said Triston Childs, who is white.
Deja Brown, who is African-American, has a slightly different take.
“Everyone’s not really free. There’s still that stereotype in the back of their, head, like oh they’re black, so they must be like this,” she said.
Justin Morales agrees. He said blacks now aren’t crippled by the “manacles of segregation” as King intoned.
“But there is still racism in America right now. Many people don’t want to accept it but it’s the reality,” he said. Referring to King’s line, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty" Morales said, “there are still black people in poverty and they don’t have really good jobs or aren’t making a lot of money or aren’t succeeding.”
But it’s not the economic injustice theme in King’s speech that resonates most. It’s the images of racial harmony and his famous lines:
“I have a dream that my four little children, will one day live in a nation, where they will not be judged by the color of their skin , but by the content of their character. I have a dream someday!”
Deja Brown said she feels like she is judged by the color of her skin a lot.
“’Cause like there’s jokes going around, like oh, she’s black, so she does this and this and this,” she said. “Or people instantly assume I’m going to do something bad. It can suck sometimes, like, ugh, you know? But at the same time, it’s like whatever, I know who I am, that’s all I need to know, I’m going to keep on walking, and follow the yellow brick road.”
Another dream of King’s was that one day, “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Deja Brown’s friend Rachel Smith is white.
“I’m really comfortable at our school,” said Smith. “I never think about race. So this is kind of weird for me because you’re like, ‘oh, how do you feel like black people feel’, I’m like, I never really consider them as like black people, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s Deja.’ When we start to get to know each other more, we definitely start to see each other’s character more.
Though the kids see more racial harmony today, they see other destructive forces at work.
“We have trapped races in stereotypes, like Deja was saying,” Smith said.
For example, police racially profiling African-Americans. But the kids also say races stereotype themselves, which is equally destructive.
“Just 'cause you’re black means you have to act a certain way,” Brown said. “Because I don’t act like, you know, ‘ghetto’ and walking down with my pants down touching my ankles, that definitely gives people the impression that I’m not black. I’m like white on the inside.”
Her peers call it “whitewashed.”
“I like a lot of dorky, nerdy things,” Brown said. “And a lot of people are like, ‘she likes Star Trek so don’t talk to her.’ And so my dream is to be really comfortable with who you are. We can all accept each other.”
Like Deja, Justin Morales yearns for the day people don’t have to play an image and can just be themselves. Still, he is stereotyped.
“I’m brown," he said. "Most people think that I like soccer because there’s a connection between soccer and Mexicans. But I don’t like soccer at all. It bores me. My favorite sport is football and track.”
The group hates stereotyping like this. It’s what they get most passionate about during our discussion. At 14 and 15, larger societal issues of racial equality are not front and center in their minds. They don’t feel race relations and economic injustice are so bad that another March on Washington is needed. They translate King’s I Have A Dream speech in very personal ways. And each one of them - black, white and Latino – have very similar dreams.
Rachael Smith said she would join a march if it was about the judgment of people
“Not even about their skin, but just judging them because of the content of their character,” she said. “And I see it around me all the time. Even just like sitting on the school bus, there are kids laughing about another girl. And so I guess one of my dreams is for everybody to be more open-minded and mature a bit more. Look past teenaged insecurities. So one of my dreams is to stop a lot of that so there’s not as much suicide and depression in our country.”
Triston Childs said he has a similar dream.
“If people need help, they can get that help from anywhere without having any sort of barrier because of their skin color or where they’re from, getting in the way of getting what they need.”