MARLIKE OUSLEY sits up straight in a chair, his feet swinging far from the floor because he's only 6. ``He was the king of all the black peoples. Well, not a king. Like a king,'' he says, describing the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ``He dreamed that the peoples be friends, the white peoples and the black peoples,'' and Marlike's arms make a circle embracing an imaginary world that knows no colors or castes.
Marlike is only a first-grader in the all-black Farren Elementary School on Chicago's South Side; yet already Dr. King's deeds are etched on his thoughts. It's the same for many youths here.
Three decades have passed since King gained a seat in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. That's a long time ago and a long way from Chicago. But neither years nor miles seem to matter to these kids. King is their hero, a modern-day knight who cut through benighted customs. They're not so naive as to believe that he banished prejudices - but some of the prejudicial practices, yes.
Young people ranging from 6 to 18 from three all-black schools (Farren and Schiller elementary schools and DuSable High School) were queried about the civil rights leader. Chosen at random, the students weren't forewarned, nor were they prompted by teachers.
Without exception, King is much more to these kids than a page in a history book or some black man ``back then'' who earned them a holiday in January. They may be shaky on the sweeping sequence of events from King's birth (1929) to the fatal bullet on the Memphis balcony (1968), but every one of them knows that King achieved his triumphs through nonviolent resistance. And it's this fact that awes them the most, his use of a technique that, to them, is tied to the stars - a tactic foreign to their streets, where crime carves deep scars. They put King's kind of courage on a mountaintop where no Rambo or TV's Hawk could ever climb.
``He was the strongest of leaders,'' says Baraka Thomas, a DuSable sophomore. ``He didn't fight violently. I don't know how to describe it - he did it all mentally and by marching and with words.''
``Maybe he was scared,'' says 18-year-old Ronald Shelton, ``but he was more concerned about getting his point across. They bombed his house, threw bricks, turned on hoses, but he just kept going. You can't find people like that anymore.''
When asked if these nonviolent techniques would work today, the DuSable senior expresses doubts, an opinion shared by a number of his cohorts. In their view, there are lots of drugs. And drugs cause people to act irrationally, making them unwilling to listen to the sense of nonviolence. Ronald sums it up with, ``People are just crazier today.''
Down the block at Farren elementary, nine-year-old Anthony Clay looks out the window to the neighborhood beyond where, on street corners here and there, fires blaze in oil drums to warm the jobless, and where winter's white coverlet can't hide the trash in vacant lots.
``Out there,'' he says, ``some kids have knives and bricks and bottles. I don't know if I could fight with words like King did. Man, I don't think I could ever do that. My cousin, though, she did,'' says the fourth-grader, who's still waiting for his brawn to burgeon. Then he tells how a teen bullied him with a stick sharpened to a rapier point. ``And my cousin, she's big, ya know, 11 years old, and she just used words. She just kept a-talkin' to him 'til we could run away,'' says Anthony, who gained a glimpse of King's accomplishments from his cousin's bravery.
Students learned the majority of their facts about King from classroom teachers, both black and white, but they also gleaned knowledge from mothers, grandmothers, churches, and TV.
If King were here today, these young people say he'd use his meetings, marches, and verbal know-how to help blacks find jobs, the bottom line for improving living conditions.
``He'd help us work for more supplies and more food,'' says Anita Martin, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Schiller, on Chicago's North Side. Anita shares space with her mother, a sister, and brother in Cabrini Green, a high-rise housing project. Hunger comes to call mainly in the month's waning days when food stamps run out. ``Mom doesn't have a job. When I get hungry, I go to my aunt's, and she feeds me,'' explains Anita.
Shonta Moffett, a Schiller fifth-grader, also lives in Cabrini Green. ``Rev. King, he'd be gettin' me away from the violent buildings. There's shootin' there, and hurtin' other people,'' says the 10-year-old, who locks the door and turns out the lights when she's scared. That way, nobody will know she's home - she hopes.
Although the Atlanta minister's civil rights movement legally tore down various racial barriers, some students are acutely aware that the blacks' low economic status has built invisible fences around their communities. They're convinced King would have used his oratory to right this situation, because isolation of any kind doesn't allow ``brotherhood'' to begin. On the whole, these students are generally cut off from whites in their age group.
The older students grasp the two-sided victory that King wanted: integration by law and integration by heart. Talking about the legislated integration, Antonio Leachman says, ``If it weren't for him [King], we wouldn't be as far as we are now.'' But the 17-year-old DuSable student isn't so sure that brotherhood of the heart is on a nearby horizon, because he detected prejudice when applying for a department store job. Did the employer want a white? ``Not exactly. He just wasn't lookin' for a black,'' and Antonio is able to laugh.
As for Darol Beamon, he doesn't see much King-style brotherhood when he walks into a store he's ``never been to before.'' He's ``allowed'' there, of course, but the welcome mat is frayed. ``The salesperson will be waitin' on a white person, and he's handling the eggs and stuff real careful, then he just throws mine into the bag. And he puts the change on the counter, doesn't want to give it to me, to touch me,'' Darol says, displaying a dark hand with a paler palm.
But the 16-year-old sophomore stands strongly in Dr. King's camp on nonviolence, affirming that fists and weapons can never erase prejudice. ``I really don't think violence is ever the answer,'' says Darol. ``To anything.''