A new generation takes up Martin Luther King Jr.'s torch (+video)
Fifty years after King's March on Washington, young civil rights activists push dreams of their own.
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"Some deal with it by leaving and never coming back," Mr. McGraw says. "Others use it as motivation to stay and fight for change. I've known since high school that I was going to be one of the latter."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures MLK: Unfinished legacy
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He believes if he puts like-minded people in a room together, they can come up with solutions for five key problem areas – education, health, economics, criminal justice, and social justice. But first, the state's past and present inequalities must be addressed.
"You can't talk about any other issue in Mississippi without talking about race," says McGraw, who is white. "For every single major issue, you're going to have racial disparities."
One of his biggest concerns is education and what he sees as a subversive resegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Private academies and residential self-segregation have led to majority-black and majority-white schools once more, and the quality of education varies.
"We pretend like we're dealing with these big, complex, pervasive issues, but we're dealing with them in a dry, narrow way," McGraw says. "I want to shift the dialogue in the state from these narrow, hot-button issues to the deeper, more entrenched, more insidious problems, because I think we've barely scratched the surface."
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Marquise Lowe is trying to deal with the problems with dry erase boards, calculators, and an indomitable will. He and other instructors at the Young People's Project (YPP) in Jackson, Miss., are working to help disadvantaged kids, and by extension carry on King's legacy, by honing their math skills.
On a Saturday afternoon, around two dozen students of all ages are gathered in YPP's office, playing ice-breaker games.
"One," says a youngster.
"Two, three, four," quickly follows another.
"Five ..." Hesitation.
"Oh, you're out!" Mr. Lowe says, high-fiving the student who lost the round, as well as the handful of other boys who have gradually crept closer, hoping for his attention. The counting exercise may seem simple, but consider this: Here is a group of youngsters sitting in an office learning math skills on a weekend in August, in the middle of summer vacation.
YPP was founded in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Algebra Project, an innovative program formulated by civil rights pioneer Bob Moses in Cambridge, Mass., after he learned that his oldest daughter's middle school did not offer algebra. Before long, the project had expanded to more than 200 schools throughout the country, including here in Mississippi, where Dr. Moses risked his life in 1964 to register hundreds of black voters amid the heat and violence of "freedom summer."
With the Algebra Project, he began tackling what he saw as the modern civil rights battle – math literacy. Without good math skills, he reasoned, students were at an immediate disadvantage, held back from jobs, higher education, and other chances for success.
YPP expands on that tradition of grass-roots activism, training students to lead math labs and workshops for their peers on the theory that if you teach one person a skill, that person can teach 10 others. And slowly, inequalities are replaced by opportunities.
Lowe, 30, entered the program as a sixth-grader who loved math but had little hope for a promising future. Abandoned by an absent father and a drug-addicted mother, he grew up in Jackson's Lincoln Gardens housing projects with his grandparents. Though his home life was filled with love, the streets outside were tough. He found role models in Moses and his sons, Omo and Taba.