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Teaching Martin Luther King Jr.'s Story

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Today is the Martin Luther King holiday, a time each year when students learn about the civil rights leader's legacy. But you wonder how well is that legacy received in schools where there are racial tensions. Last month at South Los Angeles Area New High School No. 1--that's the actual name--there were two days of fighting between black and Latino students. The students call their school Santee High. They are 92 percent Latino, 7 percent African-American. We asked Youth Radio's Jennifer Obakhume to visit the school, and she has this report.

JENNIFER OBAKHUME reporting:

I'm not going to try to tell you about race relations at Santee High School. instead I'm going to let you eavesdrop on a hallway conversation between Tilsa Umpier(ph), a half-black, half-Latino sophomore, and Jennifer Morales(ph), a Latina. Listen closely. It doesn't end the way you'd expect.

JENNIFER MORALES: I'm not trying to say nothing racist or anything, but there are a lot of black girls that if you go past them and they charge into you, they start talking to you, like, `Excuse me!' You know, they start getting their attitude.

TILSA UMPIER: I don't think it's like that. It's because people don't say, `Excuse me.' `I'm sorry, my bad,' something. And maybe we won't get all...

MORALES: But sometimes it's like why you going to go ahead and say `Excuse me' if you're not going to say `Excuse me' as well when you bump into somebody else?

UMPIER: All right, you--yeah, that's true. That's true.

OBAKHUME: See what I mean? Not every simple disagreement on race turns into a riot. The race thing isn't that cut and dry.

Now let me take you someplace else that might surprise you, the African-American studies class. It's full of Latino kids, except for a few African-Americans. Teacher Jose Larr(ph) is not African-American, but he's good at making links to Latinos in his lectures. He does the same thing with teaching about Martin Luther King.

Mr. JOSE LARR (Teacher): It's important to teach in our schools the legacy of MLK Jr. because we still live in a racist society, unfortunately, and we still have to continue his dream, his struggle to continue on, along with Malcolm X's, Marcus Garvey, Rudufo Gonzales(ph), among others.

OBAKHUME: Some students might wonder, why teach African-American studies at all in a school full of Latinos? But Mr. Larr's approach is to teach black history as brown history, so students feel like Martin Luther King Day is for everyone, not just African-Americans.

Jennifer Morales says students have been talking about King's teachings since the fights broke out.

MORALES: He went out to get the point that we should all be together and for us to have a right like that, it's, like, just making him look pretty bad.

OBAKHUME: After the riots here a few weeks ago, students organized a peace and unity week that included an assembly, and of course Mr. Larr took another opportunity to bring in African-American studies.

Mr. LARR: And we talked about the connections between black and brown in the South Central community, and not just about the tensions but also historical contexts of how our histories are very similar.

OBAKHUME: Similar histories may be one thing, but dealing with day-to-day realities is another. Even Tilsa, who we met earlier in the hallway, says King's teachings still apply now up to a point.

UMPIER: I think peaceful resistance is good, but if you got to get violent to get your point across, then that's what you got to do. You do what you got to do.

OBAKHUME: But another fight is the last thing many students say they want to deal with. Just ask Alicia Presley(ph). She credits Martin Luther King for the days the school is peaceful.

ALICIA PRESLEY: Because if it wasn't for him, the Latinos and the blacks, we wouldn't be in the school today. We would be racially divided, and it would just be Armageddon.

OBAKHUME: Well, Armageddon is probably an exaggeration. Like I said, I'm not here to give you final answers about race relations at Santee High. That's a complicated subject and a lesson to continue another day.

Mr. LARR: Please put your books away, those of you who are done.

OBAKHUME: For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Obakhume.

CHADWICK: Jennifer's story was produced by Youth Radio.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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