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Black Students Strain to Grasp King's Heritage

January 14, 1988|Bob Baker | Bob Baker is a Times staff writer

After a wave of masonry contracts and building additions had been approved by the school board, two black teen-agers from South-Central Los Angeles, sitting in the first row of the audience, walked to the microphone.

Odetta Walters, 15, was first. With only the slightest nervousness she began to read:

When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . .

Then came her classmate, Kristi Ray, 17, picking up the same theme:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring the sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds" . . .

The words were Martin Luther King Jr.'s, taken from his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights movement's exclamation point.

At scores of observances this week in preparation for the formal observance of King's birthday on Monday, many people are straining to grasp new meaning from the old words, struggling for a way to rededicate themselves.

Myles Goodson is one of them.

Goodson, who chairs the school board's Black Education Commission and who helped organize the King presentation at this week's board meeting, wanted to stress black excellence in science and math. He knew where to go for the best examples: the school district's much-praised magnet school, King-Drew Medical Center Health Professions High in Watts, which selected Walters, who plans to go to Princeton or USC to become a cardiologist, and Ray, who will train at Howard University or UC Santa Barbara to be a microbiologist.

Older role models from Los Angeles' scientific and business community were also honored at the board meeting, like Dr. James King Jr., senior technical manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Adrian Dove, assistant regional director of the U.S. Census, and homegrown talents like Robert Booker, a Jefferson High graduate who is now the school district's chief business and financial officer.

The roster of blacks who've made it in the professions was intended to contrast with the more popular mass media images of poverty, failure and despair.

But it also raised a question. Marilyn Douroux, director of the Black Education Commission, put it this way before the ceremony: "Why are students today not succeeding like these people did? What is missing in the system?"

Goodson, a big, expansive man who is a successful pharmaceutical salesman, did not need to ponder the question long.

"Kids today have no sense of history," he said later. "They have a deprivation of plenty--everything is based on now . When we try to stress science and technology, we're trying to remind them that black folks used to be the inventors. You look at (Lewis) Latimer who worked with Bell on the telephone (making patent drawings), Benjamin Banneker (a mathematician and scientist who worked on a commission that set the original boundaries of the District of Columbia), Elijah McCoy (who patented dozens of inventions dealing with the automatic lubrication of trains and other machines), Garret Morgan (who developed an automatic traffic stop sign in the 1920s and sold the rights to General Electric). Those things happened because we used to be laborers, you know? You become creative.

"A lot of black kids won't believe you if you tell them about some of the things black people did because in their own society they're thought of as not being productive. Their parents don't know about the history. And these kids are around all this technology that comes not from the Americans but the Japanese. They don't think of themselves as being able to create. They're just thinking of replicating. We have to give the kids a real sense of history. We have to make them see what can come from science, from mathematics.

"What Dr. King was trying to espouse was the concept that if all things were equal, how much more we could accomplish. Imagine if all these kids from the ghetto had had the opportunities, if their natural instincts to create hadn't been inhibited--we might have had a VCR we didn't have to buy from Japan."

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