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King's Dream Lives With Children : Youngsters Comment About Civil Rights Leader

January 20, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

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. --Martin Luther King Jr.

Most of them had never heard of Jimmy Carter. A few thought Richard Nixon was a football star.

But because schools will be closed today on the first official federal holiday in his honor, school children have at least some inkling of Martin Luther King Jr., according to a sampling of Los Angeles students. The students are familiar with the civil rights struggle and many of them eagerly discuss the state of race relations in their neighborhoods.

Of Buses and Boycotts

These impressions were drawn from recent visits to eight classrooms of fourth- through sixth-grade students at five of the 618 public schools in Los Angeles. (The L.A. schools are about 54% Latino, 19% black, 19% white and 8% Asian.) The children were asked about what they knew of Carter and Nixon, about King and Rosa Parks, about sitting on the back of the bus and boycotts. For every one who knew Nixon was once President, at least 10 knew that a tired Rosa Parks got arrested because she wouldn't yield her seat on a bus, prompting a boycott.

While a few of the more than 200 children interviewed told of parents sitting them down to talk about civil rights, the vast majority of whites, Asians and Latinos--and a substantial minority of blacks--said they knew of King only from their surrogate parents: school teachers and television.

"I know about him because I was watching TV a year ago, watching a funny program, and my father said, 'You shouldn't be watching that but the movie (on another channel) about Martin Luther King because he was a great man and you should learn about him,' "said Carolina Barrientos, 10. She's a fifth-grader at overcrowded 10th Street Elementary School just west of downtown, where shouted Spanish fills the playground at recess and most of the families are so poor that the children get government-paid lunches.

"My first-grade teacher told me about Martin Luther King," said Carolina's classmate, Betty Watkins, 10, who is Anglo. "Our class had a birthday party for him."

Less typical was the experience of Adam Olsen, 11, a sixth-grader at Topanga Elementary School, which is 91% white and has only one black student. "When I was 8, Mom and Dad sat me down and told me he (King) wanted to make black Americans free and had me watch a TV film about him," Adam said.

Lupe Abitia, 10, one of Ruby Liddell's students at 10th Street Elementary, said: "He was good to people and he told white people to get together with black people."

"He got arrested because he tried to change the world and they (whites) didn't want him to," said David Gekchyan, 10, a fifth-grader on the student council at Van Ness Avenue Elementary School, in a working-class neighborhood south of Hollywood and north of Hancock Park that is becoming increasingly Latino.

"He told the whole world to have freedom because they don't get along," said Wendy Hernandez, another Van Ness School student council member.

" Sometimes black and white people don't get along," added another student council member, Cesar Tellez, 12.

In each of the eight classes visited, at least some children thought that King, who was assassinated in 1968, lived at least 100 years ago and some thought slavery continued until as recently as two decades ago. A few children thought King led violent combat for racial equality, but most seemed aware of nonviolence and a sizable minority indicated a knowledge of how boycotts can organize economic power to force social change.

Flavio Valadez, 11, in Wally Aker's sixth-grade class at Allesandro Elementary School, said King "tried to help black people and once they (whites) threw a bomb into his house." Flavio's school, situated near Dodger Stadium and the Golden State Freeway, is 80% Latino. Three of four children there qualify for government-paid lunches.

The classroom conversations about King frequently led to discussions of race relations in general.

Flavio's classmates, Danny Ceniceros, 12, and Patty Alvarez, 11, both said they personally had observed, and been troubled by, racial conflict.

Danny told of a motel owner who mistakenly thought his father, a football photographer, was black and wouldn't rent a room to him. Patty recalled the gang of white youths in her old East Los Angeles neighborhood who harassed a black family, breaking a house window and shouting racist epithets.

Danny said he also learned, from movies and old TV news footage, how "the policemen, during the riots (following King's assassination) beat on black people like they weren't human and it didn't matter. It made my insides go weird because I didn't ever see anything like that."

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