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All this week, Boston Public Schools are holding their annual observances of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was assassinated 44 years ago this week, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Hundreds of students of all races from all across Boston, ranging in age from 5 to 18, gathered this week at the John Hancock Hall in Downtown Boston, with greetings and a challenge from Superintendent Carol Johnson.
"What it really is, it's about making sure all of you understand that you, one person, can make a difference," Johnson said.
Dr. King grew up in a time of white and colored drinking fountains, restrictions blocking the black vote, untold cases of police brutality, de facto support for the KKK and its reign of terror — when injustice literally prevailed. But he had a vision.
"You teach about his life legacy, what he believed in," said Nora Toney, principal of the Ellison-Parks Early Education School. "How he lived his life, starting out as a child just as they are, and how he always just had this passion for doing the right thing, doing God's will, and how it transcended his whole life."
Sometimes teachers say they teach from the headlines. Edward Brewster, a humanities teacher at the Lilla Frederick Middle School, says the Trayvon Martin case, involving an unarmed black teenager shot and killed in Florida, became a teaching point.
"I know the kids, especially in my class, the seventh-graders, had a lot of questions," Brewster said. "So I decided to actually talk about the issue. We had a conversations about it. So it was more like a history lesson connecting what happened in the past with what's going on now."
Raymond Barreau was one of the performers at the Hancock hall. The freshman at West Roxbury Academy presented an original work about lessons found in a family tree. He says he's reminded daily of the need for him to be aware; he gets what's become known as "the talk" all the time.
"Yes. My mother. My mother, 24/7," he said. "She's always on my butt, you know, always talking, always preaching — about life. She talks about anything that comes into her mind."
Duncan Malone, a junior at the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science, says he gets a similar message from his parents.
The talk, he said, is "go out there, do your school work, get a good education, and you'll do fine in life. If I'm stopped, do what they say."
...Still Being Learned
"There's always going to be racial profiling everywhere you go," said Christian Ransom, another junior at the O'Bryant school. "It's just the way people are brought up.
"My parents brought me up to be respectful, respect your elders. Don't do anything that you wouldn't do when you're around your parents."
Dr. King's famous "I Have A Dream" words were recited by kindergartners from the Nathan Hale School. They were joined by Holland School fifth-grader Nave Langford:
I have a 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.
"By King's way of saying we should be judged by 'the content of our character,' I believe nowadays, that's actually more true than back then," Malone said. "But I still believe there's some kind of judgement by skin color; it's not as serious as it was before, but it's still there."
"I feel like we have come a long way from back then," said another O'Bryant student, Connor Mactavish. "Back then race was a lot stronger and the problem was a lot bigger. But I feel nowadays we still have it. The problem is still there, because even without us knowing it we stereotype people, we put people into groups."
"Racism is not gone, not completely gone," Malone said. "There's still some of it. It's a problem we can fix, but it'll take time."
That final message from junior Malone was echoed by other students who say the nation is still learning from lessons from the past.
This program aired on April 6, 2012.
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