News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 19, 2014

'Our Heritage'

Martin Luther King Jr.

TERRE HAUTE — Today, the nation commemorates the birth of a man whose dream lives on in the hearts of millions, a feeling that is being passed down to future generations.

King lived fighting to make a reality of his dream of freedom, justice and equality for all people. Forty-six years after he died at the hands of an assassin, King is still remembered for his contributions to the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday marking the birth of the legendary pastor, activist and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, is observed on the third Monday of January every year, around the time of King’s birthday, Jan. 15.

“We’re honoring the memory [of King] and we’re honoring the movement,” said Valerie Hart-Craig, president of the The Greater Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP.

King was a leader who was able to mobilize many people across the nation to get behind an idea, Hart-Craig said.

Even the young people.

“We need to remind the young people … that it was young people that made his movement so huge” while still seeking “the wisdom of the elders,” Hart-Craig said. Celebrating King’s life and ideas yearly is important, Hart-Craig said, because “when we forget, we tend to repeat.”

It is important to pass down the history to the next generation, she said.

It is rare “to find an individual who can gather that many people to get behind an idea, and that’s what young people need to see,” she added.

‘Humbling moment’

Some young people in Terre Haute (and their mentors) got to learn about King and other aspects of American culture and history during a summer trip to Washington, D.C.

A school bus full of Terre Haute North and South Vigo high school students and teachers journeyed to the nation’s capital in June 2013. While they visited many sites, including the national mall, the U.S. Capitol Building and museums, a highlight of the trip was a visit to the King Memorial, which opened in 2011.

Erika Cantin, North High School’s African-American Club sponsor, said the group did a lot of walking but when they reached the memorial, one of the stops during their first day in D.C., “everyone became quiet.”

“It was just a humbling moment,” she said.  

The group spent time reading and reflecting on the words inscribed on the memorial.

Cantin quoted one of the inscriptions: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

One student recalled her experience.

“I stood on that spot,” said Alleyah Purnell, president of South High School’s African-American Club, and upon seeing King’s statue and reading the inscriptions, “it was amazing to me.”

The trip was made possible by the students’ years of hard work. The students raised money to fund the trip through bake sales, bingo and selling coupon packets.

That work was a learning experience in itself.

Cantin said it was important for the students to learn the importance of setting goals, “working toward those goals and seeing it through.”

Purnell said she went on the trip because she “wanted to see a lot more of my culture and anything that had to do with history.”

‘Our Heritage’

Another student, Dario Stephens of North High School, said the students made the goal to visit Washington to “see our heritage.”

Stephens, president of North High School’s African-American Club, said that goal was directly linked to the club’s motto, which was of West African origins: “To go back to your roots is to take the next step forward. For it is in the past we find the path that leads to the present. And from the present we move on to the future.”

“Our trip to D.C. was a means to connect to the roots that paved the way toward a brighter future,” Stephens said.

He recalls having the “feeling of pure joy” when, after a 15-hour bus ride and a whole lot of walking, they finally reached the MLK memorial.

“All of our tiredness just went away,” he said. “We were there to enjoy the monument, our history … the moment.”

He said King is an inspiration to him.

“Because he pushed through all the trials and tribulations that were put in front of him,” said the senior who is looking forward to a future in social work. “In the end, he still used nonviolent tactics to bring about equality for everybody.”  

‘Dr. King’s Legacy’

For Mae White, South High School’s African-American Club sponsor, King has been a lifelong inspiration.

Born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., White said one of her regrets is not being able to see King when he spoke at a Memphis church in support of black sanitary public works employees a day before he was killed in Memphis. White, who was in high school at that time, said she wanted to see King but was told by her parents that “education is number one” and she had to stay home and finish her assignment.

But the last speech King delivered, “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” which was widely broadcast, “left such an impression on me.”

After he died, White and her family occupied a “whole row” in a march to honor King.

Now, she is passionate about educating children.

“This is what I believe to my core: I believe the children are our future” and they should be given the opportunity to lead, she said.

The trip to D.C. was not only a learning experience for the students, but also an event that made a difference in their lives.

“I’m positive that [trip] broadened their horizons, and that’s going to help them to become better citizens and better people,” White said.

But it was also a great experience for White, who said she had lived and worked in and around the nation’s capital in earlier years.

“I had an opportunity to see Washington, D.C., through their eyes,” she said.

Knowing that the children are our future, “it was rewarding for me to have been given the opportunity to expose our children to part of Dr. King’s legacy,” she added.

“Even though he’s not with us physically, the message that he left is still getting through to our young people today.”

It’s a message Stephens absorbed.

Discrimination, Stephens said, still exists “and it is only through positive thinking and actively working toward a better future that we can come out on top … and we can reach our goals of equality,” he said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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