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Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. unleashed a powerful and poetic torrent upon the nation — a passionate plea for racial equality and economic justice for African Americans.
Fifty years later, the "I Have a Dream" speech still resonates with a group of teenagers at William Smith High School in Aurora, a racially and ethnically diverse city east of Denver.
They recently sat down with Colorado Public Radio education reporter Jenny Brundin to watch the speech, talk about it and share their own dreams.
Four teenagers, 14 and 15-year-olds — black, Latino and white — huddle around a lap top watching a grainy black and white video.
Watching them watch the 16-minute "I Have a Dream" speech, they don’t show emotion over King’s soaring rhetoric. But the content yes. Justin Morales recognizes the speech as pivotal.
"I believe that it major point in American history," Morales says. "It made me think, like, what if the speech never happened? Would we be living in different conditions? Maybe we wouldn’t be at this point where we are right now."
And where we are right now, these students say, is a much better place. They don’t see institutionalized segregation like there was in 1963.
"I definitely think that African-American, that race in America today, is free but there is discrimination but it’s not as present as it used to be," says Triston Childs, who is white.
Deja Brown, who is African-American, replies, "Yes, but ... everyone’s not really free, 'cause there’s still that stereotype in the back of their, head, like oh they’re black, so they must be like this."
Justin Morales agrees. He says blacks now aren’t crippled by the “manacles of segregation” as King intoned, but, "There’s still black people in poverty and they don’t have really good jobs or aren’t making a lot of money or aren’t succeeding."
But it’s not the economic injustice theme in King’s speech that resonates most. It’s the images of racial harmony and King's dream "that my four little children, will one day live in a nation, where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Brown says, "I do feel like I’m judged by the color of my skin a lot ... 'cause, like there’s jokes going around, like oh, she’s black, so she does this and this and this. Or people instantly assume I’m going to do something bad."
Deja’s friend Rachael Smith, who is white, sees things differently.
"I’m really comfortable at our school," Smith said. "Like, I never think about race. So this is kind of weird for me because you’re like, ‘oh, how do you feel like black people feel’, I’m like, 'I never really consider them as like black people,' I’m like, 'oh, that’s Deja.'"
Though the kids see more racial harmony today, they see other destructive forces at work. Kids say races stereotype themselves, which is equally destructive.
"Just cause you’re black means you have to act a certain way.’Cause I don’t act like, you know ghetto and walking down with my pants down touching my ankles, that definitely gives people the impression that I’m not black, I’m like white on the inside," says Brown.
The group hates stereotyping like this. It’s is what they get most passionate about during our discussion. At 14 and 15, larger societal issues of racial equality are not front and center in their minds. They don’t feel race relations and economic injustice are so bad that another March on Washington is needed.
"I would join march if it was about this - the judgement of people. Not even about their skin, but just judging them because of the content of their character," says Smith.
This segment aired on August 28, 2013.
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