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In Atlanta, students discuss Martin Luther King's dream

One school takes the anniversary of his famous speech as an opportunity to teach about civil rights history. But the present keeps creeping into discussions.

August 30, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Teacher Shawonna Coleman, left, talks to her Atlanta high school students about the history of segregation in the U.S.
Teacher Shawonna Coleman, left, talks to her Atlanta high school students… (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles…)

The focus in Room 2313 at Benjamin E. Mays High School this week was on civil rights. But as with much of life in Atlanta — a city steeped in history and muddled in the present — the past kept getting overshadowed by the here and now.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, an event headlined by this city's favorite son, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Desirée Welch, 15, consulted with a small group of classmates huddled around a classroom computer to research the forced integration of U.S. schools — former Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in a University of Alabama doorway to prevent two black students from enrolling, the screams hurled at the first nine black students who attended Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.

The subject soon turned to Mays High School itself. Out of the 1,560 students now enrolled, how many were white?

"Maybe it's like, two?" Welch said. "But I mean, I think they are biracial instead of just completely Caucasian."

A similar conversation was unfolding in a different small group across the room, where students were discussing segregation. The laws that enforced divided schools are long gone, but several students pointed out that the city that was once King's home never became a model of blended neighborhoods.

"You look at the city of Atlanta — you see the south side, and it's mostly black people, African Americans. But you go to the north side, it's a predominantly white population," said Corey Booker, 15. "I think that people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks would be disappointed in us, because we as a nation, it's still not as unified as it should be."

Here in this sprawling metropolis, a mecca for African Americans across the U.S. since the 1970s, the history of the civil rights struggle has long shaped the surface of life — now no less than on the day that thousands marched on Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Like many U.S. cities, Atlanta remains racially and economically bifurcated. Inside Atlanta proper for the last four decades, however, black leaders have managed to convert a surging African American population into political success, claiming the mayor's office and much of the City Council.

Mays sports a modern sunlit library and a video lab with huge, glowing screens where students edit multimedia projects. "We have everything here that we pretty much asked for," said Principal Tyronne Smith. "If you can't learn here, you're not trying to learn."

In class, Smith watched from the back of the room as teacher Shawonna Coleman, 26, gave students a lecture on discriminatory Jim Crow voting laws. It soon turned into a disquisition about civic responsibility for the all-black class.

She reminded students that black would-be voters were once forced to perform tests in order to be able to vote.

"If we look at your voting rights, you talked about how you actually had to count marbles in a jar," Coleman said. "Could you actually, possibly count marbles in a jar?"

"No," several students replied.

"What if you actually took this voting test and turned it in and the answers were right — would they actually grade your voting test?"

"No."

Coleman then wheeled to the present day and reeled off a sequence of rapid-fire questions that sounded less like questions than admonitions. "You will have voting rights in a couple of years. When you get those voting rights, will you encourage your peers to vote? How will that affect you? Will you encourage them to vote? Will you take them to vote? Will you actually vote?"

The students, perhaps surrendering to the barrage, murmured in the affirmative.

Marquese Owens, 15, who was wearing a tie and a charcoal pinstriped vest, noted that the standards by which African Americans discriminate "against ourselves" — making judgments about fellow African Americans based on dress and skin tone — weren't much different from those made by racists during the civil rights era.

"While we might have had different skin tones — what you might call black, caramel, peach, whatever the case may be — we stayed one color all our lives," Owens said. "As white people, when you're born, you're pink; if you're sick, you're green; when you're cold, you're blue; when you die, you're purple; so you truly go through all the colors of the rainbow — and yet we were called 'colored.'"

Booker and Zoe Nelson, also 15, debated rapper Macklemore's recent comments to Rolling Stone magazine, in which the musician said he wouldn't be as successful if he were black, that his whiteness was a privilege, even in 2013.

"When you think about it, it's so many Caucasians in the hip-hop industry, and if you look to country, or look to pop, or indie — name me some African Americans," Booker said.

"I can't," Nelson said.

Sporting a stylish pair of orange-rimmed Ray-Bans, Nelson told the class she sometimes felt discriminated against by her own peers. "I might be looked down upon because somebody says, 'This is what the white kids listen to,' or if I talk a certain way," Nelson said.

Welch said she wished she were attending a school with more white students. That way, she said, "you become more socially well-rounded."

"Like, sometimes when you walk into a room full of white people, you feel uncomfortable, because we're not all culturally linked," Welch said.

A question from Principal Smith boomed from the back of the classroom: "So, connecting this to Dr. King's dream, do you think the dream lives?"

Almost before he could finish, Welch had her reply.

"No," she said, and then added, with certainty, "I think our generation has to be equal to bring forth the dream."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

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