`IT'S hard to imagine sleeping in your car because a motel wouldn't accept you. Or having to stay thirsty because the sign above the fountain said `For White Only,''' says Coretta Scott King, describing segregation in the deep South. She is speaking from the podium of Freedom Hall at the sprawling King Center in Atlanta, named for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Mrs. King is addressing a packed auditorium of teen-agers and adults attending the first annual Youth Workshop on Nonviolence. Despite the accomplishment of the civil rights movement of the '60s, King stresses that young people need to learn the power of her late husband's philosophy of nonviolence today. Surrounded by her family and veterans of the movement, she says, ``We need nonviolence because we are losing a generation to crack, cocaine, guns, and violence. We need it in China and Poland.... We need it because nothing else has worked.''
Though some of the 250 young people, who range in age from 11 to 18, had traveled all night on buses, they clap and cheer as King speaks. Indeed, the group sounds more like a high-school pep rally than a group of workshop participants coming together to study the history of the civil rights movement and the ideology of Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1989 workshop launches the King Center's campaign ``to train thousands of people from all walks of life to lead movements of justice, equality, and peace by the year 2000,'' explains Dexter Scott King, the youngest son of Martin Luther King Jr. and the new president of the downtown center. Held in conjunction with the 14th Annual Workshop on Nonviolence for Adults, the youth workshop is designed to ``prepare and mobilize a new generation toward a nonviolent army.''
The future soldiers, dressed mostly in the uniform of the day - brightly colored T-shirts, blue jeans or shorts, and tennis shoes - come from cities across the country and several foreign countries, including India, South Africa, Canada, and the Israeli-occupied territories. Some received scholarships to attend; others found local churches or corporations to sponsor them. Some raised money for their $195 registration fee by holding raffles and community activities. (Groups of 10 or more paid a $75 registration fee.)
Many of the teens aspire to careers in law, international relations, broadcasting, and education. Some of the scholarship recipients, though, are juveniles with a history of offenses.
The youths' reasons for attending the workshop are as varied as their T-shirts and hair styles. Two groups, one from Detroit and one from Philadelphia, are on a modern day Freedom Ride, tracing the civil rights marches of the '60s. Atlanta, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., is their last stop.
One of the youngest participants, 11-year-old Markii Nix of Albany, N.Y., says she came to the workshop ``to learn more about Martin Luther King and meet Mrs. King.'' Shaunn Wychem, a 17-year-old who was part of the same youth group from Albany, has a different reason for attending the workshop. He says, ``Atlanta has a lot of successful blacks who are taking charge. I wanted to meet [Mayor] Andy Young - he's one of my heros. I'd like to go into politics and model myself after Young.''
Diane Gaffney, a recent graduate of a high school in Rochester, N.Y., says, ``I believe in nonviolence and I want to make some changes in society. I also want to develop some leadership skills.''
Mbusi Ntombela, 17, a high school student from Durban, South Africa, is attending the workshop because he has learned ``very little about Martin Luther King and his nonviolent philosophy in school.'' Wearing a wooden necklace shaped like the African continent with the word ``HOME'' written in gold letters, he says, ``I know about violence and its weaknesses because of our government - and I wanted to compare Dr. King with Nelson Mandela.''
During the four-day workshop, the young people listened to speeches by Harry Belefonte, Dick Gregory, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and Capt. Charles Alphin, a St. Louis police officer who does not use a gun. While some flocked around the speakers to get autographs and photos, others want answers to specific questions.
Leilee Miller, a senior at a high school in north Atlanta, wants to know how to deal with violence and abuse from the police. Another student, whose great-great grandfather had been a slave in Georgia, asks Captain Alphin how the other police officers reacted when he refused to fire his gun.
One afternoon, the eager young participants break into small strategy sessions. They discuss the six steps of Kingian nonviolence: 1.Gather the facts from both sides; 2.Educate; 3.Examine your personal commitment; 4.Negotiate with opponents; 5.Go into direct action; and 6.Reconcile.
Two high school girls wrote a lively rap about the six steps, using the phrase ``nonviolence is what we're all about'' as the refrain.
WHILE the teens learned about black history and the civil rights movement, they also discussed current issues. And some wondered how they could actually use the six steps in dealing with today's problems, especially teen-age pregnancy, drugs, and high school gangs.
Diona Smiley, a junior from an inner-city school in Detroit that has a dropout rate of close to 60 percent says, ``Thirteen and 14-year-old girls are getting pregnant, and keeping their babies so they can show them off to the other girls. There's no stigma attached to having a baby. I could use a calm approach if I tried to talk with a girl who was pregnant, but I'm not sure I could use any of the six steps.''
Louis R. Saffache, a 17-year-old from Manhattan, says, ``I don't think I could get through to the gangs in our school as one person using the six principles. It would take a group of people and maybe some administrators using the principles.''
King and her daughters Yolanda and Bernice, as well as several other speakers, remind the young peoplethat the ability to practice nonviolence is an attitude and way of life. Yolanda, the oldest of the King children, says, ``You must continue to talk, explore, and consider the alternatives to a nonviolent life. It's [becoming nonviolent] a long journey that begins with baby steps.''
During a lunchtime session with Andrew Young, one student asks, ``How do you fight racism that's quiet and subtle?'' After pausing a moment, Young replies, ``One of the simplest things we can do is speak to people. Black and white students need to talk with each other in schools and on campuses.''
In the closing session, students receive certificates and the benediction from Rev. Dereck B. King, the nephew of the late civil rights leader. Then Dexter Scott King says, ``I challenge you to take what you have learned here and become a role model of nonviolence in your family, with your friends, and in your career. Study Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus ... and don't give up.''