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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.

(Page 7 of 7)

"I saw people get robbed and almost killed in shootouts on a weekly basis, and I understood that was a life I didn't really want, because I knew what came with it," Lowe says. "To see them not have to go that route made me feel like I could go to school and have nice things."

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The program has had a similar effect on Larry Johnson. He entered YPP at the end of his eighth-grade year and credits it with helping him reach his latest milestone – beginning his first semester at Jackson State University, where he plans to major in mathematics and become a high school algebra teacher.

He listens to Lowe, he says, because he feels as though he understands him. He grew up in a single-parent household as well, dodging drugs and gangs to stay in school. Lowe kept him from feeling sorry for himself and taught him to think positively, drawing empowerment from his growing confidence in the classroom.

"You see, I used to be like y'all," he says to a group of teenage girls, who giggle shyly. "This program really helped change my life. It's no telling where I would be without it."

He doesn't tell them about his two cousins, YPP dropouts who were recently involved in a shooting and are now in jail. When he stops to grab a slice of pizza, the girls compare notes.

"Was he serious or was he playing?" one asks about Johnson's homily on the effect of YPP.

"He was serious," 14-year-old Trinity Stewart says softly. As Johnson walks away she watches him intently, lost in thought.

*     *     *

Hours before he was to give his most powerful speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was still tweaking the words, pacing his hotel room as he worked on rhythm and intonation, stopping intermittently to scrawl revisions before beginning his pacing anew.

And then on that fateful day in August, after a week of writing and rewriting, he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and let the Baptist preacher in his soul take over, delivering what was to become the most significant 17 minutes in civil rights history.

A half century later, King's measured baritone continues to echo, in the lives of those he sought to free and in the voices of many of the young people – the Melanie Andrades, the Stephen Greens, the Renee Ombabas – just stepping into the rapids, joining the mighty stream. They will work to write and rewrite some of society's scripts, and, if they don't, their forebears – people like Cynthia Gardner – will be there to urge them to do so.

Ms. Gardner, from Tallahassee, remembers things today's youth cannot fathom. When she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1960, her father – the only driver in the family – insisted on taking her the entire 900 miles. Though he became weary, he was unable to find a motel that would accept blacks. They finally found shelter at a dilapidated rooming house in Raleigh, N.C.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, Gardner and many others believed the battle was over, but they were wrong, she says. The fight for human dignity will always be a compelling, and necessary, struggle. It is a war without end.

"I think a lot of us thought we were finished, that we had reached the end of the road after so-called integration," she says. "I think we thought, 'Oh, our journey is over.' Really, we had just taken a few steps."


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